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5 Facts about Juneteenth

Today, Americans will be celebrating Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery. Here are five facts you should know about the longest running African-American holiday.

1. On Sept. 22, 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln announced that if the rebels did not end the fighting and rejoin the Union by Jan. 1, 1863, all slaves in the Confederate states would be free. The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation read in part, “. . . on the first day of January . . . all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” The proclamation applied only to states that had seceded from the U.S., leaving slavery to remain unchallenged in the six border states. (Four of these states—Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia—abolished slavery before the war ended. Delaware  and Kentucky only abolished slavery when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in December 1865.)

2. Although President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became official on the first day of January 1863, the news didn’t arrive in Texas until two and a half years later. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston with word that the war had ended and that those who were once enslaved were now free. One of Granger’s first acts upon landing in the Lone Star state was to read Texas General Order #3, which 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.

3. To honor this anniversary, an annual tradition sprung up known as Juneteenth, a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth.” From its origin in 1865, the observance of June 19th as the African American Emancipation Day has spread across the United States and beyond. “The people from Texas took Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other places they went,” wrote Isabel Wilkerson in The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

4. By the early 1900s, economic and cultural forces led to a decline in Juneteenth activities and participants, notes State-sponsored segregation, which often banned African Americans from using public parks, made it difficult to hold large-scale celebrations. The result was that, outside of Texas, observances declined for most of the 20th century. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s that a resurgence of interest in the tradition began. In 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader’s Poor People's Campaign held a Juneteenth Solidarity Day, giving the holiday a new prominence in the civil rights movement.

5. In 1979, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday. By 2008, 47 of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia recognized Juneteenth as either a state holiday, a ceremonial holiday, or a day of observance. (The three states that do not recognize Juneteenth are Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota.) The U.S. Senate passed a resolution last year recognizing "Juneteenth Independence Day" as a national holiday, but it has not yet been approved in the House.

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