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The Origin of the Juneteenth Celebration
The name of the holiday comes from a portmanteau of the words "June" and "nineteenth," since it was on June 19th, 1865 that General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and told the people there that the Civil War was over, and the slaves were now free. He read them General Order Number 3, which begins by saying, "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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer."
As the news spread, those who were previously enslaved were shocked and excited. Some took the declaration at face value, and declared that they would now work for their former masters as free men. Others left immediately - either to go north or to find family members in neighboring states - as soon as they heard the news.
Each year, those who had been enslaved celebrated Juneteenth as a day for celebration over their freedom. On that day, families would gather together, pray together, and remember the excitement of hearing the declaration for the first time. Some of them even made a pilgrimage back to Galveston each year to be together for Juneteenth.
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Why That Day?
But why that date? After all, President Lincoln had made the Emancipation Proclamation over two years beforehand, on January 1, 1863. The Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865. So what was so special about June 19?
In truth, the Emancipation Proclamation did theoretically free all slaves in the South (although not in the northern states), but the southern states were not yet under Union control. Therefore, the Emancipation Proclamation did not successfully abolish slavery.
In April of 1865, General Lee finally surrendered and the South was forced to accept Lincoln's proclamation, as well as the Thirteenth Amendment. There are several theories about the extra two months (or the full two and a half years) that it took for the message to get to Texas - everything from a killed messenger to deliberate stifling of the news. So when General Granger finally announced that slavery had been abolished, it came as quite a surprise and a reason for celebration.
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How to Celebrate Juneteenth
There is no one way to celebrate the Juneteenth holiday. People are encouraged to gather together and discuss issues of diversity and race, debunk myths and stereotypes about African Americans, and put on skits about slavery and its abolishment. Many Juneteenth celebrations also include eating traditional foods, doing traditional dances, and reading excerpts from diaries of people who were enslaved. You can even buy Juneteenth buttons, t-shirts, and other accessories to personalize the day.
- Photo of General Granger By T.M. Schleier (photographer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
- Juneteenth.com. "World Wide Celebration." http://www.juneteenth.com/
- Social Studies for Kids. "The Importance of Juneteenth." http://www.socialstudiesforkids.com/articles/holidays/juneteenth.htm
- Black Enterprise. "Happy Juneteenth Day."
- Primary Documents in American History. "13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution." http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/13thamendment.html