The Fourth of July, America’s birthday, isn’t our only Independence Day. June 19, known as “Juneteenth,” celebrates the end of slavery.
There is a common misconception that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves with a stroke of his pen on January 1, 1863, during the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, did no such thing in reality. The Civil War raged on for over two more years, until the surrender of Confederate Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant in April of 1865. In fact, many enslaved people, particularly in the western-most confederate state of Texas, did not even know of the existence of the Emancipation Proclamation until the war ended. Even if they had known, there was no one to protect them from being hunted down or even murdered if they simply tried to escape. The Union simply did not have in place, until the end of the war, sufficient forces to enforce the terms of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers came to Galveston, Texas, and General Gordon Granger read aloud a general order freeing the quarter-million enslaved persons residing in the state. The forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome any resistance. Many of those enslaved in Texas had never ever heard of the Emancipation Proclamation in any event. June 19, 1865, was the first news most learned of their freedom. The President’s executive order, known as "General Order Number 3", began as follows:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with
Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, 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.”
The reaction to this profound news ranged from pure shock and disorientation to immediate jubilation. There were 250,000 former enslaved persons in Texas on June 19, 1865, and June 19th was coined “Juneteenth,” celebrated in African-American communities during the late 19th century. In more recent times, there has been a movement to revive this celebration; it is a legal state holiday in Texas. Today, 39 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth, although all do not grant it full legal holiday status. A Congressional resolution also underscores the historical significance of “Juneteenth Independence Day.”
In recognizing the history of American freedom, Juneteenth is as deserving of recognition as Independence Day. It represents a time of celebration and reflection. As Robert Meyers, chairman of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation put it: “We [blacks and whites]have gotten there in different ways and at different times, but you can’t really celebrate freedom in America by just going with the Fourth of July.”