Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, annual holiday celebrated on June 19 in the United States to commemorate the ending of slavery. For more than a century, Juneteenth was observed mainly in Texas and parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. In recent decades, communities across the nation have adopted the holiday.
June 19 marks the day in 1865 when word reached African Americans in Texas that slavery in the United States had been abolished. More than two years earlier, on New Year’s Day, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Delivered during the American Civil War, this proclamation ordered the freeing of all slaves in states that were rebelling against Union forces. The proclamation had little effect in Texas, where there were few Union troops to enforce the order.
News of the proclamation officially reached Texas on June 19, 1865, when a Union general backed by nearly 2,000 troops arrived in the city of Galveston. The general, Gordon Granger, publicly announced that slavery in the United States had ended. Reactions among newly freed slaves ranged from shock and disbelief to jubilant celebration. That day has been known ever since as Juneteenth, a name probably derived from the slang combination of the words June and nineteenth.
Juneteenth celebrations began in Texas the following year. Within a few years they had spread to other states and became an annual tradition. Celebrations often opened with praying and religious ceremonies and included a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. A wide range of festivities entertained participants, from music and dancing to contests of physical strength and intellect. Food was central to the celebrations, and barbecued meats were especially popular.
In the late 19th century, African Americans in the largely segregated South began migrating north and west in search of a better life. Many of these blacks transplanted their Juneteenth celebrations with them. African Americans continued to migrate from the South to other parts of the country during the late 1930s and 1940s. By World War II (1939-1945), however, Juneteenth celebrations began to decline. Historians cite several reasons for this. Many African Americans, removed by 70 years or more from the 1865 emancipation, were less inclined to carry forward the enthusiastic celebrations of earlier generations. In addition, some historians note that many African Americans wanted to distance themselves from vestiges of slavery.
Interest in Juneteenth celebrations further waned during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, when the holiday was associated with past repression and segregation. In some southern cities, Juneteenth was the only day each year when all-white local governments would permit African Americans to use city parks and zoos. In 1980 Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas. Since then, observance of Juneteenth has spread to other parts of the United States.
Today, Juneteenth celebrates freedom for African Americans in addition to many other themes, including education, self-improvement, African American accomplishments throughout history, and tolerance and respect for all cultures. Festivities may include parades, picnics, tributes and speeches, music, gospel performances, exhibitions, baseball games, rodeos, and other activities.