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Juneteenth: Demystifying the Emancipation Proclamation & Celebrating Freedom

By Richelle B., Director of DEI

A Federal Holiday
In 2021, June 19 was recognized as an American federal holiday known as Juneteenth. This day is also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day. For over 150 years, Juneteenth was being celebrated by communities across the country. The tragic killing of George Floyd among other Black people at the hands of police resulted in a push for Juneteenth to become a holiday to celebrate freedom and to recall America’s long history of slavery.

The Mythology Surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which stated, “that all persons held as slaves” in the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” Wasn’t that the end of slavery? It turns out, this applied only to rebelling states that seceded from the United States. In fact, the Emancipation Proclamation did not have the power to free everybody. There were 3.9 million slaves and only 500,000 were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Although Texas was a rebelling state, the Emancipation Proclamation went unenforced there for 2.5 years.

What Happened on June 19, 1865?
On June 19, 1865, more than two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to free slaves in America, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with his Union troops and issued Order Number 3, which stated, “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.”* Despite the order, former slaves did not necessarily have immediate freedom, nor were they “expected to pursue, as the Declaration of Independence states, life, liberty and happiness.”** Freedom varied vastly state by state, but Texas was the last to hear the official order, which is why this date holds such significance.

Why Should We Care About Juneteenth?
This is one of the first holidays that Black Americans created on their own. Juneteenth “places Black people at the center of the conversation about freedom, its meaning and manifestation in this nation.”** Although June 19 did not actually signify freedom for all, it has become a time to reflect, celebrate, and speak out against ongoing injustices that Black people face in the United States.

While many Black families celebrate with religious ceremonies and parties in their community, there are many ways for everyone to acknowledge Juneteenth: educate yourself and learn more about the history and significance of the holiday, attend local Juneteenth events, visit a Black Museum or cultural site, and support Black organizations. This holiday serves as a powerful reminder of the ongoing struggle for civil rights and the need to engage in practices that support equity and justice for all.

*Gates, Henry Louis. “What Is Juneteenth? African American History Blog.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 19 Sept. 2013, www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-is-juneteenth/.

**“Why Is Juneteenth Important?” National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian, 31 May 2023, nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/why-juneteenth-important.


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