Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, but few places commemorate the end of slavery on that day.
Instead, June 19 — or Juneteenth — which was first declared an official state holiday in Texas nearly four decades ago, has spread across the country as the day to commemorate the end of slavery in the American South.
Why June 19?
Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day and Juneteenth Independence Day, marks the day that Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with the news that the Civil War had ended and slavery had been abolished.
“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 general announced, freeing about 200,000 slaves in the state.
Physically isolated from the rest of the states active in the Civil War, Texas was slow to receive news of the war’s end. Because the state was not a major site of combat during the Civil War, few Union troops were present to back Lincoln’s executive order in Texas. In practice, this meant that slaves in the state continued to work in servitude, even after they had been freed, because news of their emancipation had not yet reached them.
By the time Granger arrived with the news in 1865, the Civil War had already been over for more than a month and the Emancipation Proclamation had been in effect for about two-and-a-half years. While no new legislation was passed on June 19, the day holds a special significance and place in history as the day that slaves on the the last frontier of slavery in the US were freed.
Slavery was formally banned when Congress adopted the 13th Amendment in December 1865.
How Is It Celebrated?
In Texas, Juneteenth has been recognized as an official holiday since 1979 and, today, 48 states and Washington, DC observe the day. A bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday has passed through both chambers of Congress and was signed into law by President Joe Biden on June 17, 2021, becoming the 12th national holiday.
In 2020, Global Citizen launched the Juneteenth Pledge with singer-songwriter and producer Pharrell Williams to urge American companies and legislators to make Juneteenth a paid holiday.
“As Americans, we love and we appreciate Independence Day, but when July 4, 1776, took place, the only ones that were free from the British monarchy were our white brothers,” Williams said, according to CNBC. “The white sisters could not vote. The Native Americans, where we get this land from, they were not free, and certainly, the African Americans, women and men, we didn’t have our freedom.”
Since then, various companies pledged to recognize Juneteenth as an annual paid holiday for employees.
Across the country, people commemorate the day with parades, community gatherings, and memorial services. But Juneteenth is more than just a celebration — it’s also a day for action and activism.
Even after the end of the Civil War and Granger’s order, many remained enslaved. Some freed slaves were forced to continue working to “pay their debts,” others were arrested for questionable crimes and sentenced to hard labor, and many found themselves continuing to work someone else’s fields for little to no compensation as sharecroppers.
The latter is, in fact, what Granger suggested newly freed slaves do. “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages,” he said.
Though Juneteenth is celebrated as the day slaves were freed, equality and justice for all were not established on that day. What followed were decades of racial discrimination enshrined in legislation that laid the foundation for racial inequality and injustice that persists in the US today.
From the country’s mass incarceration problem to police brutality to employment-related discrimination — all of which disproportionately affect African Americans in the US — Black Americans are still fighting for equality and justice.
“I think that Juneteenth is a necessary moment of observation because our government and, to a certain degree, our nation and our culture has not really acknowledged the trauma of 4 million enslaved people and their descendants,” Karlos Hill, a professor of African and African-American studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of Beyond the Rope: The Impact of Lynching on Black Culture and Memory, told Vox. “It’s necessary, but it isn’t sufficient in terms of what we need to when it comes to acknowledging this history.”
How You Can Honor Juneteenth
Though Juneteenth marks an event that largely impacted the lives of Black Americans, activists and advocates say that the occasion can and should be recognized and commemorated by all.
“The day should be recognized for what it is: a shared point of pride in the symbolic end of centuries of racial slavery — a crime against humanity and the great stain on America’s soul,” historian Kenneth C. Davis wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
But Juneteenth can be more than just a celebration of the end of this dark chapter in American history. It’s a day of action that everyone can take part in by supporting efforts to address racial discrimination and inequality in the US.
Check out these initiatives to learn more about how you can help further the movement for racial justice and equality in the US: NAACP, Black Lives Matter, Innocence Project, FREEAMERICA, Color of Change, Common Ground Foundation, Equal Justice Initiative.
Global Citizen campaigns for freedom, for justice, for all. You can join us in taking action here.
Editor's note: This story was updated on June 17, 2021, to reflect information about Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday and details about the Juneteenth Pledge.