Juneteenth celebrates the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas on 19 June 1865. It became an official Texas state holiday in 1979, and it is an official observance in numerous other states across the nation. Juneteenth is short for “June Nineteenth”. In September 2020, New Jersey designated the third Friday in June as an official state holiday.
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Today the significance of 19 June is celebrated in communities across the country. However, Texas continues to be the only state to officially recognize the celebration with a state holiday.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation was made by Abraham Lincoln on 22 September, 1862, it was only practically effective once Confederate territory was physically occupied by Union soldiers. And that did not happen to Texas until the Civil War was over. Thus, liberation came late to Texas’ slaves.
To make matters more critical, the slave population of Texas soared during the Civil War as slave holders fled west to try to escape the fate of Union soldiers taking their plantations and freeing their slaves. Around a quarter million slaves lived in Texas by the war’s end.
On 19 June 1865, Union General Granger arrived in Galveston with 1,800 federal troops. There, Granger read General Order Number 3 to the people of Texas that stated, “… 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.”
All 250,000 slaves in the state were free from this moment – though there were certainly cases of slave owners initially withholding the news from their slaves. Ultimately, many slaves left their former slave owners, though some chose to continue in the capacity of paid laborers. However the fundamental shift had occurred with all former slaves in Texas now being regarded fully equal with the rest of the state’s population before the law.
Juneteenth celebrations evolved quickly. They started with emotions of shock and joy amongst slaves on that first Juneteenth in 1865. Subsequent years saw gatherings of the African American community on the anniversary of their freedom. Such celebrations were resisted by some quarters of the white population, and participants were majority black for many years.
On Juneteenth, there are many local events scattered throughout Texas, where the Emancipation Proclamation is publicly read and African-American folk songs are sung. Rodeos, fairs, barbecues, reenactments of battles, and more may also be on the agenda for Juneteenth in some localities.