By Professor Mark Chambers, Stony Brook University Africana Studies and Department of History
On Thursday, June 17, 2021, following a decade of grassroots activism, the 94-year-old Texas activist Opal Lee listened to Kamala Harris — the first woman, Asian-American and Black person to serve as vice president — speak about the significance of Juneteenth in the White House East Room before introducing the president. Following his remarks, President Joseph R. Biden signed a bill to recognize Juneteenth — the celebration to commemorate the end of chattel slavery in the United States — as a federal holiday. President Biden received the bill to establish June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day after it passed the House 415-14 and the Senate unanimously.
Juneteenth is celebrated annually on the 19th of June to mark the date when some of the last enslaved people in the Confederacy were notified of their freedom following the Civil War. While President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 to free enslaved people in Confederate states, and the war ended in April 1865, many Texas Black people continued in bondage. Texas’ seclusion and remote landscape kept Union soldiers from implementing the memorandum as quickly there as they had been able to in other Confederate states.
On June 19, 1865, Union Army Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce that the war was over and the Union had won. The announcement came two months after the conclusion of the Civil War, and even longer since President Lincoln had first signed the Emancipation Proclamation. That was over 150 years ago, during a time when Juneteenth has been referred to as Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, Liberation Day, Emancipation Day, and with President Biden’s signature, a national holiday observing the end of slavery in the United States.
One former slave, Felix Haywood, described his and others feelings after hearing the message: “Everybody went wild. We all felt like heroes … just like that we were free. It didn’t seem to make the whites mad, either. They went right on giving us food just the same. We knew freedom was on us, but we didn’t know what was to come with it. We soon found out that freedom could make folks proud but it didn’t make them rich.”
Years after slavery ended, the former Galveston slave Margrett Nillin was asked if she preferred slavery or freedom. She answered unequivocally, “Well, it is this way, in slavery I owned nothing. In freedom I owned a home and raise my family. Which all causes me to worry and in slavery I has no worries, but I takes freedom.” Documenting the American South (DocSouth)
Black people in the United States have celebrated Juneteenth ever since, but because America has a long history of omitting history, very few Americans outside of the Black community ever heard of the holiday. Hopefully, now with the establishment of Juneteenth National Independence Day, that reality will change as more Americans learn about and study in depth the inclusive history of the United States.