Juneteenth and the Official End of Slavery in the United States

By Alicia Roberts Johnson 

Many people believe or history books may tell you that slavery for African-Americans in the United States ended on January 1, 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which declared that all persons held as slaves within the rebellious states shall be free.  Unfortunately, while January 1, 1863 marked the end of slavery for some African-Americans in the United States, it did not mark the end of slavery for those in Texas.  Continued to be held in bondage, it was some two years later on June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger brought the good news to Galveston, Texas that the war had ended and all those in bondage were now free.  Prior to Major General Granger’s arrival in Texas, there were not enough Union soldiers in Texas to enforce the proclamation.  Upon his arrival Major General Granger would issue the following executive order to the people of Texas:

“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.”  General Orders, Number 3, Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865.

It was out of this executive order that the holiday of Juneteenth would be born and recognized as the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States.  To date, 47 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or ceremonial holiday and many businesses such as Target, Nike, and the National Football League have declared Juneteenth a holiday for their employees.  While Juneteenth has been celebrated by many African-Americans for well over a century now, it has recently gained increased national recognition with the development of more robust exhibits at national museums such as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, as well as through national television broadcasts.  The Commonwealth of Virginia would join in the celebration of Juneteenth on June 16, 2020, when Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued Executive Order 66, declaring his intent to make Juneteenth a permanent state holiday.  This legislation was subsequently passed by the Virginia General Assembly in the fall of 2020 after lawmakers unanimously voted in favor of this historic legislation.  

Many communities and organizations across our nation have celebrations to commemorate Juneteenth to promote and cultivate awareness of African-American history and culture.  I encourage you to avoid using Juneteenth as just another day off, but rather use Juneteenth as a time to learn more about African-American history and the many contributions African-Americans have made and continue to make to our society.

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Alicia Roberts Johnson serves as the Chair-Elect on the Board of Governors of the Diversity Conference.

Editor’s Note: One day before this presentation, Juneteenth became a federal holiday with its first observance on June 18, 2021.

 

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