Exploring Juneteenth: Get the history, relevance and more resources

Black residents of Washington, D.C., gathered on April 15, 1866, to commemorate freedom.
Black residents of Washington, D.C., gathered on April 15, 1866, to commemorate freedom.

June 19, 2020 – You may or may not find it mentioned on your smartphone calendar or day planner. You may or may not have heard it mentioned in a history or civics class. But Juneteenth, while not an official federal holiday in the United States, is widely recognized throughout the country as a day of liberation, commemorating the date enslaved Black people in Texas were informed of the Emancipation Proclamation (nearly 2 years after its enactment).

Commemorating freedom and the official liberation from legal enslavement has taken many forms throughout the United States. Juneteenth, June 19th of every year, represents a uniform recognition and celebration of that pivotal moment in our history.

Below is a brief summary of the historical facts, but you can learn even more by consulting the links listed below or exploring the numerous resources catalogued in libraries across the United States.

History of Juneteenth

General Order No. 3 announcing the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation.

With this formal announcement of the end of slavery in Texas, June 19th quickly became the symbolic commemoration and celebration day for African Americans. Emancipation Day celebrations already had a history—African Americans in New York had been celebrating July 5th since the end of slavery there in 1827, and Black residents of Washington, D.C., gathered on April 15, 1866, to honor freedom. But in the decades following the war, Juneteenth became the focal date for African American communities to memorialize liberation across the country. 

On June 19, 1865, Gen. Gordon Granger arrived with the Union Army in Galveston, Texas, and issued General Order No. 3 announcing the enforcement of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (which had been issued more than two years earlier on Jan. 1, 1863) and ending slavery in Texas.  Even though the Confederate army had surrendered at Appomattox in April, the war persisted in more remote places across the south and southwest. Many enslaved Blacks had already freed themselves by escaping across Union lines, but for countless others, it took the arrival of the Union troops and northern control of land and government to enforce liberation. 

A Juneteenth parade in Richmond, Va., in 1905.
A Juneteenth parade in Richmond, Va., in 1905.

African American churches helped raise money to buy land and create Emancipation Park in Houston in 1872 for a location to hold these celebrations. Juneteenth became a traditional African American holiday in Texas and also nationally, celebrated with speeches, music, and parades. These celebrations remained community-led, however, because prior to 1979, neither states nor the federal government officially recognized a day celebrating the dramatic achievement of emancipation.

Eventually, in 1979, Texas passed a bill introduced by State Rep. Al Edwards recognizing Juneteenth as a state holiday – the first state to do so.  Since then, 45 states have recognized Juneteenth as a holiday or day of observance (Florida did so in 1991). The United States Senate and House have each passed resolutions recognizing Juneteenth, but Congress has yet to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Thus there remains no day federally recognizing one of the most important events in American history and central to our modern Constitution.

Dean Alexandre’s take

“It is crucial that we take a moment to pause, reflect, and educate ourselves about America’s racial history, the work left undone in that area, and about structural racism’s impact on all aspects of institutional work, if left unaddressed,” said Dean Michèle Alexandre. “This work is essential to forming stronger, more collaborative and meaningfully inclusive communities.”

Dean Michèle Alexandre
Dean Michèle Alexandre

“Juneteenth is also a vivid testament of black communities’ history of resilience and commitment to preserving human dignity through creativity and cultural innovation,” Alexandre continued. “The Juneteenth celebration is one of a myriad of ways black communities have created beautiful, joyful contributions out of deeply painful circumstances. For more on this, do check out the recent essay by Princeton University Professor, Dr. Imani Perry, called ‘Racism is Terrible. Blackness is Not.’”

“Juneteenth was established to celebrate victory over brutality and tyranny, but we can see that, more than 150 years later, we have a long way to go. As always, we should look to today as a place to initiate conversations where they need to be started, continue those that have begun, and re-commit to ensuring racial justice and meaningful access  for everyone.” 

Local events celebrating Juneteenth

Stetson Law’s Black Law Students Association, acknowledging that police brutality, traumatizing videos, pictures, and real life encounters can take a toll on mental health, is hosting a Juneteenth Wellness event for students from 10-11:30 a.m., Friday, June 19. The goal is to learn the history of Juneteenth and engage with classmates to promote mental health and self-awareness. The Zoom meeting ID is 856 0621 6786, and no password is required.

The Tampa Bay Times offers a list of events to commemorate and celebrate Juneteenth happening throughout the weekend all over Tampa Bay. 

For further reading

Special thanks to Professor James W. Fox Jr. for compiling this brief history on Juneteenth, the resources list, and photographs.