On June 17, 2021, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. signed into law the bill that established Juneteenth National Independence Day, June 19, as a legal public holiday. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the date Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and delivered General Order No. 3 announcing the end of legalized slavery in Texas. Historically, it has been a holiday celebrated by people of African descent in the United States, as well as people in Canada, Jamaica, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, and other countries throughout the world. Juneteenth is also a “symbolic date” representing the African American struggle for freedom and equality, and a celebration of family and community.
Although two years and six months had passed since President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, many African Americans remained enslaved in Confederate states and also in the border slave states that remained loyal to the Union. The surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9, 1865 had not impacted Texas. Many plantation owners refused to acknowledge that the war was over and refused to “release” their enslaved workers from bondage. This practice continued even after the issuance of General Order No. 3.
General Order No. 3, delivered by Major General Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865 stated:
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.
Many enslaved Blacks in Texas had already escaped prior to Granger’s announcement. A brigade of the 25th Army Corps, comprised of more than 1,000 African-descendant soldiers, arrived in Galveston and captured Galveston on June 5, 1865, a week before Granger’s arrival. They chased the rebel government and soldiers into Mexico. The Black soldiers of the 25th Army Corps also spread the word about freedom, and Civil War historians estimate that thousands of enslaved people escaped to freedom because of the actions of the 25th Army Corps.
The struggle for freedom and equal rights has continued, and so has the celebration of Juneteenth, as people of African descent and others commemorate Juneteenth in their homes, churches, schools, and communities. They attend church services, host parades, races, picnics, oratorical contests, musical, literary, and cultural festivals, and often visit cemeteries to reunite the freed and living with their enslaved ancestors. Since January 1, 1980, when Texas officially recognized Juneteenth as a state holidayExternal, more than 40 other states have passed legislation observing or recognizing the significance of Juneteenth. Historians have observed that Juneteenth remains significant because it is one of the earliest continuously observed holidays that African Americans established in the United States; it signifies for the African American population that America is the land of the free and that the fight for equality is ever present and ongoing..
- Listen to Hari Jones, Civil War historian and curator of the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C., as he describes the events and dispels the myths surrounding the history of Juneteenth (listen to 14:40-27.54). Jones’ presentation is one of several captured on the Library of Congress’ website documenting The Juneteenth Book Festival Symposium on Black Literature & Literacy, a day-long symposium on Juneteenth, one of the oldest observances marking the end of the enslavement of African descendants in Texas. This Library of Congress event commemorated African American freedom with an emphasis on education and literacy; it opened with Hari Jones’ history of Juneteenth. Three panels followed: “The State of Black Literature,” “The Stakeholders of Black Literacy,” and “Independent Artists: Our Journey as Storytellers of the African Diaspora.”
- ListenExternal to Dr. Shennette Garrett-Scott, historian, trace the history of Juneteenth events from the late nineteenth century “freedmen colonies” and settlements’ celebrations to the present community events. She explores Juneteenth and Emancipation celebrations over a period of two centuries.
- Listen to Texas State Representative, Albert Edwards (1934-2020), who introduced and spear-headed the passage of the bill recognizing Juneteenth Day in Texas. One of the highlights in this interview is Rep. Edwards’ discussion of the negotiations for the billExternal. His story is one of 95 stories or remembrances of Juneteenth celebrations represented in The HistoryMakers, a digital archive of oral history video interviews with over 2,500 historically significant African Americans.
- Read two essays advocating the ‘rightly’ celebration of Juneteenth as a day of freedom and as an opportunity to center the importance of the past as a source of knowledge:
- Read “The Birth of Juneteenth; Voices of the Enslaved” to understand the actions of Logan Stroud, one of the largest slaveholders in east Texas, as he announced to his more than 150 enslaved workers the provisions of General Order No. 3.
- Consult the Congressional Research Service Juneteenth: Fact Sheet. Updated June 7, 2021 for an alphabetical list of the 48 states and the District of Columbia that commemorate or observe Juneteenth, with year of recognition, and citation. Also contains sample Congressional speeches and recognitions of Juneteenth; and, selected Presidential Proclamations and Remarks commemorating Juneteenth.
- Use Congress.gov, the official website for U.S. federal legislative information, to follow the legislative path that established Juneteenth as a Federal holiday.
- A variety of collections provide first person accounts and insight into the lives of African Americans enslaved in the United States. Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories makes available recordings of twenty-three formerly enslaved people describing their feelings about slavery, slaveholders, coercion of the enslaved, families, and freedom. Several individuals sing songs, many of which were learned during the time of their enslavement. Another collection, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938, contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery (transcripts) and 500 black-and-white photographs of formerly enslaved individuals. These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration, later renamed Work Projects Administration(WPA). Both collections contain interviews with people enslaved in Texas such as Uncle Billy McCrea pictured above.
- Search Chronicling America, a collection of historic American newspapers, to find articles about how Juneteenth has been celebrated. You’ll find articles about special events, family gatherings, and other activities.
- The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress includes early versions of the Emancipation Proclamation, an early draft of a bill to abolish slavery; to explore this aspect of Lincoln’s correspondence, search the collection on Slavery.
- See the entry for the Emancipation Proclamation in the Library’s Primary Documents in American History series.
- See the essay on Abraham Lincoln and Emancipation in the Abraham Lincoln Papers. The collection brings together the wealth of Lincoln materials held at the Library of Congress including correspondence and papers accumulated primarily during Lincoln’s presidency, prints, broadsides, books, pamphlets, sheet music, cartoons, maps, drawings, and other memorabilia that offer a unique view of Lincoln’s life and times.