On July 19, 2021, President Biden signed legislation declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday. Juneteenth, taking its name from combining the words ‘June’ and ‘nineteenth,’ marks the occasion of June 19, 1865, when Union troops entered Galveston, Texas, to announce all enslaved people were free upon the surrender of the last Confederate stronghold. While Juneteenth being celebrated as a national holiday is long overdue, Juneteenth has a very special meaning in Texas.
Two and a half years before June 19, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved African peoples in Confederate territories. But because Texas was so geographically removed from the Union, in addition to there being few Union troops in the state, the proclamation was hardly enforced. That is until on June 18, Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops arrived on Galveston Island to occupy Texas on the federal government’s behalf and make the announcement of General Order No. #3:
*“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.”
Of note, even after Gen. Granger’s announcement, enslavement still existed elsewhere. The border states of Delaware and Kentucky, remaining part of the Union during the Civil War, maintained enslavement until passage of the 13th amendment, ratified on December 6, 1865. Nearly six months after Emancipation Day 1865, African people remained enslaved in two states.
Why Emancipation Day in Texas, specifically Galveston, takes center stage for a national holiday is because it is the last Confederate territory where enslavement was declared no more.
The first celebration of Juneteenth by African Americans was in 1866, in Texas. Then, Juneteenth was called Emancipation Day. There were other Emancipation Day celebrations in other states, in memoriam of when freedom from enslavement was announced. For example, in Florida, Emancipation Day was May 20, 1865. In the District of Columbia, it was April 16, 1865. In Mississippi, it was May 8, 1865. For others, Emancipation Day celebrations took place on January 1, in remembrance of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The first Juneteenth celebration took place with community gatherings, including sporting events, cookouts, prayers, dances, parades and the singing of spirituals like “Many Thousands Gone” and “Go Down Moses;” some events even featured fireworks, which involved filling trees with gunpowder and setting them on fire. At its core, these celebrations were not just to celebrate emancipation, but an opportunity to inspire an uplifting of the race, as well as for families broken up due to enslavement to reconnect.
Sadly, Jim Crow sought to quell any opportunity for Black humanity to assert itself.
Additionally, celebrations of Juneteenth experienced a decline during World War II and also during the Civil Rights Movement, yet Juneteenth was revived for good in the 1970s in some communities, especially after two Black members of Congress convinced the Texas legislature to declare Juneteenth an unofficial ‘‘holiday of significance…particularly to the blacks of Texas.’’
Texas was the first state to establish Juneteenth as a state holiday, and the law passed through the Texas Legislature in 1979; it was officially made a state holiday on January 1, 1980. After made a holiday in Texas, other states did also; 48 out of 50 states recognized Juneteenth as a holiday prior to the federal government — in large part because, as Isabel Wilkerson shared in her seminal work, *The Warmth of Other Suns, “The people from Texas took Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle and other places they went.”
Again, it’s long overdue for Juneteenth to be recognized as a federal holiday. It is the truest independence day in the United States, way more than July 4, 1776. Juneteenth, its history and why it is important should be taught in schools throughout the United States. Whereas July 4, 1776, was paid with the blood of “patriots” of a new nation, their blood purchased the bodies of Africans to be enslaved within their new nation. However, Juneteenth announced freedom for all, secured with the blood of Union soldiers comprised of both white men and Africans.
Certainly Africans fought during the Revolutionary War, but they fought on both sides in their attempt to secure freedom wherever they could find it. But during the Civil War, their interests were aligned with only one faction.
With that said, it is important that when teaching and celebrating Juneteenth, all Americans be sure to acknowledge the date as a day of celebration for the announcement of enslavement’s end in Texas. This isn’t about gatekeeping, but rather safeguarding a legacy indigenous to Black Texans and their rich history where Black liberation is concerned.
Texas was the entry point to freedom, serving as home to the underground railroad to Mexico for enslaved Africans. When Texas was a part of Mexico, Texas was a land where enslavement was abolished, thanks to the famed Black president Vicente Guerrero. It was in Texas where Black Seminole leader Wild Cat led Black Seminoles through to Mexico after escaping enslavement when forced from their Florida home after the Seminole Wars. Texas is where the Black Seminoles, along with Mexican authorities, rescued another Black Seminole legend, John Horse.
Texas is rich in history where Black liberation is concerned.
And while it is easy for some to get caught up in the commodification of Black history, particularly those seeking to profit from Black history, Americans must celebrate as the Black Texans of 1866 — acknowledging Black freedom, the Black family and dedicating themselves to supporting Black people; support by way of public policy, not a watermelon fruit salad.
My message to the United States: don’t “Cinco De Mayo” Juneteenth; celebrate the day, but do so with respect, reverence and regard for African people, especially Black Texans.
Rann Miller is the director of anti-bias and DEI initiatives, as well as a high school social studies teacher for a school district located in Southern New Jersey. He’s also a freelance writer and founder of the Urban Education Mixtape, supporting urban educators and parents of students in urban schools. He is the author of the upcoming book, ‘Resistance Stories from Black History for Kids,’ with an anticipated release date of February 2023. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ.