Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Thoughts on Juneteenth

Mitch Kachun is Associate Professor of History at Western Michigan University. He recently edited, along with William L. Andrews, The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride. The Curse of Caste is the first novel ever published by a black American woman. Kachun, who also authored, Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915, will speak at a Juneteenth celebration in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, on June 23, 2007.

I first learned about Juneteenth while I was in graduate school in the early 1990s. I had expressed to a fellow student my interest in researching the history of African American emancipation celebrations in the 19th century, and she said, “Oh, you mean like Juneteenth?” And I said, “Huh?”

Today, if Americans have any knowledge at all about commemorations of the end of U.S. slavery, their reference point is generally Juneteenth. The term is a contraction for June 19th, the date in 1865 when Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas, and announced that slavery in that former Confederate state had ended and that all African Americans were free. In 1980 the state of Texas designated Juneteenth as an official state holiday, and at least 13 other states list Juneteenth as an official holiday, though most do not close their government offices. Now hundreds of communities large and small across the United States observe Juneteenth.

slavebride.jpgSo why was I unaware of Juneteenth’s existence until the 1990s? I was just beginning my study of emancipation celebrations in black communities in the late nineteenth century, and Juneteenth was an anomaly then, its celebration limited to Texas and parts of surrounding states. When migrating Texans tried to instigate Juneteenth celebrations in other regions, they were often ridiculed. The fact is that there were many different dates celebrated to commemorate the end of American slavery, most—like Juneteenth—with local or regional significance. Blacks in the North and upper Midwest often celebrated on August 1, a date they had observed for decades to mark Great Britain’s abolition of slavery in the West Indies. Many communities observed the January 1 date of Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation or the September 22 date of his 1862 Preliminary Proclamation. African Americans in southern Virginia often celebrated April 9 as “Surrender Day,” to mark General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Richmond blacks celebrated April 3rd—the date United States troops took control of the former Confederate capital. In parts of Tennessee, oral traditions contend that August 8th was the day to celebrate because that was when President Andrew Johnson freed his own slaves at his Greenville home in 1865. In response to a grassroots movement, Tennessee recently declared the 8th of August an official holiday.

This proliferation of dates is one reason that African American activists have had difficulty joining together to lobby for one single date for an official national holiday commemorating the end of slavery. Of course, white racism and lack of support for any such holiday was—and to a large degree remains—an enormous obstacle. Today, however, there is a concerted effort and increasing momentum among many groups to create an official Juneteenth National Holiday. One snag in this process is that, in fact, we already have an official national holiday commemorating the end of slavery. In 1948 President Harry S Truman signed a bill designating February 1 as National Freedom Day, honoring the date in 1865 when Abraham Lincoln signed a congressional joint resolution creating the Thirteenth Amendment, which formally abolished slavery in the United States upon its ratification later that year.

So why do we not observe National Freedom Day, and why do many African Americans work to establish a Juneteenth National Holiday? I can’t say for sure, but I think there are some fundamental reasons that many believe Juneteenth to be the most appropriate emancipation holiday. The date, June 19, 1865, represents the lengthy delay between Lincoln’s issuance of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the day when enslaved black Texans learned of their liberation. To many activists this lag symbolizes the continued delays in achieving full racial equality in America, thus making Juneteenth more representative of the emancipation process than other dates. Moreover, both the January 1 date of Lincoln’s Proclamation and the official February 1 National Freedom Day call attention primarily to the actions of white politicians, rather than to the actions of African Americans or to the complexities and contestation emancipation has engendered in American history and culture.

When you get right down to it, it seems perfectly consistent with America’s national ethos that we should have a national observance celebrating the end of slavery. After all, until 1865 the nation was living a lie. Legally condemning and forbidding human bondage finally put the nation’s laws in alignment with its founding principles of liberty and equality. A holiday in itself, of course, cannot create social, political, and economic justice. But it can serve as a reminder that there are ideals toward which we still need to strive, in our communities, in our nation, and in the world.

Recent Comments

  1. Judge Jim Wynn

    I agree totally with your conclusion that “it seems perfectly consistent with America’s national ethos that we should have a national observance celebrating the end of slavery”. You point out correctly that Truman set 1 February as the date because that was when the 13th Amendment was launched. But slavery did not end officially in America until the ratification of the 13th Amendment which occurred when the necessary two-thirds of the state votes was obtained with the ratification by Georgia on 6 December 1865.

    So, there we have it, we could take Truman’s date since it was the date the Amendment was launched, or celebrate the “real” date which is when the 13th Amendment actually became law in the United States, 6 December. I vote for the latter though I well recognize the the value of celebrating an existing congressionally authorized date is an easier route.

    In any event, it surely wasn’t “Juneteenth” which was no more than a day in which the African Americans were made aware of a freedom that had already achieved by the limited reach of the Emancipation Proclamation.

    Jim Wynn
    Jim.Wynn@yahoo.com

  2. Rev. Ronald Myers

    Juneteenth is America’s 2nd Independence Day celebration. 26 states recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or state holiday observance, as well as the Congress of the United States.

    Together we will see Juneteenth become a national holiday in Amemrica!

    “DOC”
    Rev. Ronald V. Myers, Sr., M.D.
    Chairman
    National Juneteenth Holiday Campaign
    National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF)
    National Juneteenth Christian Leadership Council (NJCLC)
    http://www.Juneteenth.us
    http://www.19thofJune.com
    http://www.njclc.com
    http://www.JuneteenthJazz.com

  3. Clifton P. Lewis

    May I point out that the United States did not gain its independence on July 4, 1776, it took a revolutionary war and much bloodshed before this great nation gained its independence. Likewise, freedom from slavery involved a long tortuous process that was officially begun on January 1, 1863 when President Abraham Loncoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. That document did not do everything that we think it should have done, but it is clear that it accomplished a great deal after it was issued in 1863: 1) it expanded the objective of the war beyond just saving the Union to include the ending of slavery; 2) it literally shook the foundation of the Confederacy by loosening its main underpinning which was slavery; 3)it authorized the enlistment of Black soldiers; and 4) it freed enough men to enable over two hundred thousand to join the Union Army and Navy.

    A slaverholder in the state of Maryland declared that the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation “struck the nation like a thunderbolt from a cloudless sky.” The esteemed Mr. Frederick Douglass suggested that January first should be remembered “as if it was a thousand years.”

    Yes, there are many significant freedom dates that should be remembered, and the significance of each one should be taught. However, I cast my vote for the date the official process began – January 1, 1863!

    As a Black preacher said “may God forget my people when they forget this day.”

    Clifton P. Lewis
    Director, L. B. Brown House Museum
    Bartow, Florida (www.lbbrown.com)

  4. Venita Benitez

    If I had to pick between January 1st and Juneteenth. I pick Juanuary 1st. January 1st because President Abraham Loncoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and also because of the 1808 abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade Act established to go in effect on January 1, 1808. So we have two for one already an established day off for most people. Although I still celebrate Juneteenth with the people of Texas because they celebrate it and I live here and have felt thier pain. But I don’t believe it is the 2nd Independence Day for celebration. If anything, the July 4th Independence Day in Texas should be very difficult to celebrate considering it was on July 4, that Texas signed and joined the Confederate States. Sincerely, ME IN TEXAS but CONNECTICUT.

  5. Juneteenth is officially recognized as “Juneteenth Independence Day” by the congress of the United States.

    In 1997, during the 105th Congress, a historic joint Juneteenth resolution was passed by the Congress of the United States through Senate Joint Resolution 11, introduced by Senator Trent Lott (R-MS), and House Joint Resolution 56, introduced by Congressman J. C. Watts, Jr. (R-OK), recognizing the “19th of June” as “Juneteenth Independence Day” in America.

    Americans of African descent were trapped in the tyranny of enslavement on the country’s first “4th of July”, 1776, Independence Day.

    We honor our ancestors, Americans of African descent, who heard the news of freedom and celebrated with great joy and jubilation, on the “19th of June”, Juneteenth, 1865.

    It took over 88 years for the news of freedom to be announced in Southwest Texas, over two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Lincoln.

    Even though the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863 and slavery was not officially ended until the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 18, 1865, we have chosen to join our ancestors on the “19th of June”, 1865, as the day we celebrate the end of slavery.

    The National Juneteenth Holiday Campaign has worked diligently for several years to establish legislation in 29 states to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or state holiday observance, the District of Columbia, as well as the Congress of the United States. This has been a great accomplishment for the “Modern Juneteenth Movement” in America, reaching far beyond the establishment of Juneteenth as a state holiday in the place were it all began, in Texas, first celebrated in 1980.

    Together we will see Juneteenth become a National Holiday in America!

    “DOC”
    Rev. Ronald V. Myers, Sr., M.D.
    Chairman
    National Juneteenth Holiday Campaign
    National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF)
    National Juneteenth Christian Leadership Council (NJCLC)
    http://www.Juneteenth.us
    http://www.19thofJune.com
    http://www.njclc.com
    http://www.JuneteenthJazz.com

  6. Venita Benitez

    Like I said… I feel your pain. Together, see Juneteenth become a National Holiday in America (and then what?). I’m not searching for more Holiday’s in America! I am teaching, sharing that slavery still exist in our world. Over 246 million slaves in our world today. We lost many Africans to the sea and to soil. I’m more upset about what’s going on today. America is teaching me about modern day slavery which is going on today, greater than 400 years ago.

  7. Tatiana McAllister

    Juneteenth should be celebrated, but the fact of the matter is that it only represents the freedom of African American’s in the state of Texas. As an overall race we weren’t all free until December eightteenth of 1865, so why can’t this be our recognized National Holiday. We need our exact date because it’s a fact and it resembles us as a whole instead of state division. It may be too close to Christmas for most people, but I want to stand for that represents everyone not just some of us.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *