The history of Juneteenth Day and why it's an important holiday worth celebrating

Posted at 6:17 AM, Jun 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-19 07:18:11-04

MILWAUKEE — Juneteenth is an annual celebration rooted in the moment roughly 250,000 African-American slaves learned they were free in the year 1865.

The name "Juneteenth" is a combination of the words "June" and "Nineteenth," which is the date in 1865 when this powerful moment in African-American history took place.

"If you can imagine being enslaved, then it's certainly a moment to be celebrated," said Clayborn Benson, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society.

Benson points out that Juneteenth Day should not be confused with the day all slaves were freed.

"It's the 13th Amendment that actually ends slavery legally," explained Benson.

The 13th Amendment was not fully ratified until December 1865. In the years leading up to that amendment was the Civil War and after the end of the Civil War, but before the 13th Amendment was ratified, is when Juneteenth Day was born.

To fully understand the, now widely celebrated, holiday, we have to start with the Emancipation Proclamation, which was signed in the midst of the Civil War.

"It’s a proclamation made by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 that went into effect on January 1, 1863," explained Benson.

On that day, Lincoln declared slaves in confederate, rebellious states free. Many of those newly freed slaves moved north and it's been reported that Lincoln's goal was to recruit African-Americans to strengthen the Union Military at the time.

It was a moment that many newly freed African-Americans used to invest in the fight for their own rights.

"African Americans realized that if the war, or if this new country, was going to mean anything to them they had to be engaged and involved," said Benson.

Up until the Civil War ended in April of 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was made law, slaves were still being held captive in Texas, which was isolated from much of the war.

It wasn't until June 19, 1865 that General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas with a troop of Union Soldiers and read the Emancipation Proclamation aloud. In that moment, he announced freedom of nearly 250,000 enslaved people there.

The celebrations immediately began and included food, music, formal attire, and educational ceremonies. Many of the things you might see at a Juneteenth Celebration in 2020 stem from the very first celebrations back in the late 1860s.

"June 19 is the day people in Galveston and the other freed enslaved people are honoring their freedom from enslavement," said Benson.

Juneteenth Day celebrations have grown ever since in the United States. Today, Juneteenth is an official holiday in all but three states: Hawaii, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Efforts to have congress declare Juneteenth a federal holiday have stalled, though for many African-Americans, Juneteenth Day is a day that marks independence. It's even reportedly referred to by some African-American's as the "Black Fourth of July."

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