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History and Significance of Juneteenth Day

Rujuta Patil Mar 2, 2020
Juneteenth refers to the freedom day or emancipation day celebrated by African-Americans in the U.S., originally in Texas. It commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery and emancipation of slaves on June 19, 1865.

Lift Every Voice and Sing

This song, also known as the Black American National Anthem, is one of the many songs sung during Juneteenth celebrations.
Juneteenth is made by combining 'June' and the date 'nineteenth'. This day commemorates the announcement of 'abolition of slavery' in Texas on June 19, 1865. It has been observed annually since the year 1866, more so as a large celebration almost till the early decades of the 20th century. It was declared a state holiday by the U.S. state of Texas in 1980.

Juneteenth Day Celebrations

Under the guidance from Freedmen's Bureau, Juneteenth was first celebrated in the state capital in 1867. It symbolizes the emancipation of African-American slaves living in the Confederacy, or the southern slave states. This festivity was, in the beginning, banished to the outskirts of the cities.
Black groups arranged funds and bought vast spaces to celebrate their occasions, as segregation was nearly state sponsored then. These tracts of land were called 'Emancipation Park'. The Booker T. Washington Park or Comanche Crossing in Limestone County is a popular emancipation park. The annual promenade in Brenham is a memorable Juneteenth celebration.
Celebrations earlier meant a prayer service, inviting different speakers who would give inspirational messages, reading of the emancipation proclamation, listening to stories from erstwhile slaves, rodeos, street fairs, dramatic readings, pageants, family reunions, cookouts, parades, barbecues, and ball games.
Singing of songs like 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' and 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' was a part of the tradition too. All these events were definitely accompanied with barbecue and a variety of delicacies, including 'strawberry soda-pop' that became popular due to Juneteenth celebrations. Much of this is also carried forward to this date.

History of Juneteenth Day

During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation Order in 1862. It was effected from January 1, 1863. This important document had declared for all slaves to be freed in all the regions of the Confederate States of America. The Union had also begun to recruit former slaves for the military, in 1863.
Nonetheless, the proclamation itself did not assure freedom for the bonded, as it applied to the states that were rebelling against the Union, and also because many states simply ignored it. Besides, the state of Texas was not aggressively invaded by the Union, and few such attempts were thwarted by the Confederate troops.
So, the news about the emancipation proclamation had not reached the state. It was two and a half years later that the emancipation of slaves was realized by the masses. On June 18, in the year 1865, Union Major-General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas. On June 19, from the balcony of Galveston's Ashton Villa, he issued General Order Number 3.
The Order read, "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."
Slaves, who were to become 'former slaves', could express their ultimate happiness by and rejoicing on streets. It was quite some time though before the emancipation could actually come into reality for them, as they had to struggle against their masters.
The news of freedom to slaves spread very slowly. Many plantation owners thought of not informing the slaves of this order, and thus waited until they could reap benefits from the ongoing harvest.
Although at a slow pace, the message of emancipation reached the approximate 250,000 slaves in Texas a few months after the end of the war. Juneteenth celebrations saw a decline during the 1960s, which was the period of the civil rights movement.
However, its popularity was restored in the next decade, leading to Democratic Representative Al Edwards from Houston introducing a bill for declaring this day to be a state holiday. The formal Act was passed by the legislature in 1979, making the first state-sponsored Juneteenth celebration possible in 1980.

Significance of Juneteenth Day

African-Americans take Juneteenth to be like the 4th of July. It is celebrated by everyone just like the national independence day.
Juneteenth became a crucial way for the former slaves and African-Americans to utilize the celebrations to inculcate later generations with some fundamental ideas about racial uplift and self-improvement. Intellectual readings that spread more awareness, celebrating traditions through spiritual songs, and typical food preparations helped the process.
House Bill No.1016, passed in the Regular Session of the 66th Legislature, declared the date 'June 19' to be 'Emancipation Day' in Texas, a legal state holiday. This became effective from January 1, 1980.
The day was observed as a holiday by almost half of the states in the United States, until 2008. As of 2014, 43 of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have recognized Juneteenth as either a state holiday or ceremonial holiday, a day of observance.
In 1996, the U.S. House of Representatives, for the first time, discussed a legislation to recognize 'Juneteenth Independence Day'. It was approved a year later in 1997 by Congress, through Senate Joint Resolution 11 and House Joint Resolution 56.
In 2013 the U.S. Senate passed Senate Resolution 175, acknowledging Lula Briggs Galloway (late president of the National Association of Juneteenth Lineage) who "successfully worked to bring national recognition to Juneteenth Independence Day", and continued leadership of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.