Article by: McKenna Hereford, PhD
What is Juneteenth?
What have you heard about Juneteenth? If you’re like many other people, you likely did not learn this important history in school. Maybe you’ve seen social media posts during the last few years or haven’t heard at all but want to learn more! This article will summarize some of the really important events related to Juneteenth and what exactly it is.
- In the fall of 1862, Union soldiers won an important battle in the Civil War. According to some texts, President Lincoln waited for a battle victory to free enslaved people from the south who came to union territory. He issued a preliminary proclamation stating that if the Confederate states did not return to the Union, he would free enslaved people. The South rejected the policy.
- The rejection led to the formal Emancipation Proclamation going into effect on January 1, 1863.
You probably read about the Proclamation and that was the end of the story, right? Well, not quite. Although the Proclamation was in effect, the news didn’t reach the entire United States. Keep in mind that news traveled mostly via word of mouth at that point. In fact, news did not reach Texas until two years later in 1865, which means that for two additional years, people continued to be enslaved in Texas.
On June 19th, 1865, 2,000 Union soldiers arrived to Texas to deliver the news regarding the Proclamation and freedom:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
What delayed the news reaching everywhere including Texas?
It was a long, two-year wait for people to be freed in Texas after the Proclamation was signed and formally recognized. While, yes, news traveled differently at that time compared to the instant access to news we have currently, there are some other theories for the delay as well.
- An earlier messenger of the news was killed at some point during the journey and did not reach Texas to deliver the Proclamation
- White people withheld the information as an act of retaliation
- There weren’t enough Union soldiers earlier to enforce the decree
- Slaveholders intentionally withheld the information to continue receiving profits from enslaved labor
- Federal troops colluded with plantation owners to ensure profits for one last season
- Information was intentionally withheld due to slavery positively contributing the Confederate efforts in the Civil War
These theories have varying degrees of support, but it is true that 2.5 years passed before the news reached Texas. That also means 2.5 years of enslavement compared to other parts of the country. That is why people celebrate what is known as Juneteenth, because the news finally reached the last destination in Texas on June 19th. Juneteenth has also been referred to as the second Independence Day for the United States. Celebrations among Black communities began on the one-year anniversary and persisted despite numerous barriers in the future, such as segregation. Communities would celebrate in their own homes or spaces in honor of Freedom Day.
How do people celebrate now?
These days you often see people spreading education and information about Juneteenth on social media and other settings. In fact, in 2021, Juneteenth became recognized as a federal holiday. More discussions have come about either through social media or through academic articles regarding the large gap of time between the Proclamation being declared and that information reaching Texas. Some have wondered or speculated potential wages that enslaved people in Texas could have earned during this time. Juneteenth is generally regarded as a celebration, hence the second Independence Day. Importantly, many people also discuss improvements that need to be made to address current barriers Black Americans face economically, physically, socially, and more.
Specific celebrations or commemorations of Juneteenth (aka Freedom Day) may look differently depending on the community. For example, many Black communities may have celebrations with friends or family or use the time to rest. White communities hoping to respectfully honor may look more into the detailed history, contribute to Black-owned businesses, and consider how racism continues to affect the Black community while holding themselves and others accountable.
The lack of public awareness until recent years highlights the erasure of important historical events that affected the Black community. The typical July 4th holiday that most consider to be the Independence Day did not actually represent independence or freedom for all communities. Juneteenth commemorates independence for the Black communities in the United States.