Juneteenth: The History of ‘Black Independence Day’ and Its Significance

Communities Across The U.S. Mark Juneteenth Holiday

This June on the 19th, many Americans will gather to celebrate Juneteenth, now the newest federal holiday in the United States. While Black Americans have commemorated Juneteenth since the mid-to-late 1800s, it was long absent from history books and wasn’t declared a federal holiday until 2021, following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people in the U.S. These tragedies sparked renewed calls for racial justice and led to the holiday’s national recognition.

“It recognizes liberation, it recognizes freedom. Some people will refer to it as Black Independence Day. It’s a day to celebrate the ending of an era of 246 years of enslavement that African Americans experienced in this country,” says Daina Ramey Berry, Professor of History and Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts at the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

Many Americans may not understand the significance of the date or why it is celebrated, as they may not have learned about the event in school. “Many people assume that freedom began with the Emancipation Proclamation and think of Lincoln as the great liberator,” says Berry. 

However, the true history is more complex. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that “all persons held as slaves” in the Confederacy or states that seceded from the Union, “are, and henceforward shall be free.” But this freedom didn’t arrive immediately, as the Civil War continued and Union soldiers moved from state to state to enforce the measure. “Essentially, very few enslaved people were freed in 1863,” says Berry.  

On June 19th, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued and two months after the Civil War officially ended, Union Army General Gordon Granger and 2,000 of his soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved people of their freedom. 

“When the Union army reached Galveston and notified Black people of their freedom, it generally signified that the last segment of the roughly four million slaves in the South, now knew they were officially free,” Nafeesa Muhammad, Associate Professor of History at Spelman College, told TIME in an email. “And this is the significance of Juneteenth.” 

Galveston was a major port city at the time, making it a crucial hub for business and information. “Many merchants had businesses in Galveston, so the word would spread,” says Tommie Boudreaux, Galveston Historical Foundation’s Chair of African American Heritage. “It was the most important city in the state of Texas.”

The Union Army’s arrival in Texas didn’t grant freedom to all enslaved people—many in the “border states” of Delaware and Kentucky didn’t experience an end to slavery until the passage of the 13th Amendment abolished it throughout the United States. 

While Juneteenth doesn’t mark the official end of slavery, it serves as a day to reflect on and examine the complete history of slavery and the ongoing struggle for freedom—a struggle that continued with the passage of Jim Crow laws shortly after the Civil War.

“There are different ways to look at freedom,” says Berry. “There were Black people that were free before June 19, 1865, free before December, 1865 [when the 13th Amendment passed], free before April 15, 1865, when the Civil War ended, and free before January 1,1863 with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation.”

One way many Black Americans commemorate the day is by General Order No. 3— the relatively progressive order that “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves,” and clarified the relationship between slaveholders and enslaved as one “between employer and hired labor.” In Galveston, celebrations include a massive parade, picnic, and lectures.  

Juneteenth celebrations began in Texas and other Southern states as early as 1866, Berry says. Many Texans advocated for the holiday to be officially recognized by the state— a designation that was finally achieved in 1980. 

But where exactly did the term “Juneteenth” originate? Boudreaux says it was a Houston newspaper that first shortened “June 19th” to “Juneteenth” around 1890. “I just assume that it was a mouthful to say the whole thing, and apparently it stuck,” she says.

Berry adds: “It went from a small regional understanding of freedom to a federal holiday [where] we now learn about the institution of slavery in this rich history of liberation and freedom.”

Get alerts on the biggest breaking news stories