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History You Should Probably Know: Why We Celebrate Juneteenth

Juneteenth definition

“Throughout history, Juneteenth has been known by many names: Jubilee Day. Freedom Day. Liberation Day. Emancipation Day. And today, a national holiday.”
— Vice President Kamala Harris, June 17, 2021

What: Juneteenth, a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States

When: June 19

Why: Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. The Emancipation Proclamation, meant to free all enslaved people in states that had seceded from the Union, was put into place on January 1, 1863. But it wasn’t until June 19, 1865, that this news reached the last group of enslaved people in Texas. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.

Juneteenth’s name stems from June 19, 1865, when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, issued General Order No. 3, which announced that in accordance with the Emancipation Proclamation, “all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer." Months later, the 13th Amendment was ratified, abolishing slavery in the final four border states that had not been subjected to President Abraham Lincoln’s order.

Celebrations reached new heights in 1872 when a group of African American ministers and businessmen in Houston purchased 10 acres of land and created Emancipation Park. The space was intended to hold the city’s annual Juneteenth celebration.

Juneteenth today celebrates African American freedom and achievement while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures. And ultimately, says Kevin Young, the director of  the National Museum of African American History and Culture, “The lesson of Juneteenth is both of celebration and expectation, of freedom deferred but still sought and of the freedoms to come.”