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The origins of Juneteenth and why it falls on June 19

Members of the Reedy Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church march to celebrate Juneteenth on June 19, 2021 in Galveston, Texas. Credit – Photo by Go Nakamura/Getty Images

TOn June 19, many Americans will gather to celebrate Junteenth, now the newest federal holiday in the United States. Although it was celebrated by Black Americans as early as the mid-1800s, Juneteenth is a date long left out of the history books—and only designated a federal holiday in 2021, following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people in the U.S. renewed the push for conversations about racial justice and enshrining the holiday at the national level.

“It recognizes liberation, it recognizes freedom. Some people will call it Black Independence Day. It is a day to celebrate the end of an era of 246 years of slavery that African Americans experienced in this country,” said Daina Ramey Berry, professor of history and dean of humanities and fine arts at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Many Americans may not know why the date is important or even celebrated, as many may not have learned about the event in school. “Many people assume that freedom began with the Emancipation Proclamation and consider Lincoln the great liberator,” Berry says.

But the real history is more complicated than that. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that “all persons held as slaves” in the Confederacy or states seceding from the Union “are free, and henceforth shall be free.” But that freedom did not come 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,” Berry says.

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

“When the Union army reached Galveston and informed black people of their freedom, it generally meant that the last portion of the South’s approximately four million slaves now knew they were officially free,” says Nafeesa Muhammad, associate professor of history at Spelman College. , told TIME in an email. “And this is the meaning of Juneteenth.”

Galveston was an important port city at the time, making the city an important hub for business and information. “A lot of merchants had businesses in Galveston, so word spread,” said Tommie Boudreaux, chair of African American Heritage at the Galveston Historical Foundation. “It was the most important city in the state of Texas.”

Read more: When did slavery really end in the US? The complicated history of Juneteenth

The arrival of the Union Army in Texas did not bring freedom to all enslaved people; many in the “border states” of Delaware and Kentucky saw no end to slavery until the passage of the 13th Amendment abolished it throughout the United States.

Although Juneteenth does not mark the official end of slavery, it is a day that provides an opportunity to examine and reflect on the entire history of slavery and the struggle for freedom – a struggle that continued with the passage of Jim Crow which took place shortly afterwards. the civil War.

“There are different ways to look at freedom,” says Berry. “There were black people who were free before June 19, 1865, free before December 1865 (when the 13th Amendment was passed), free before April 15, 1865, when the Civil War ended, and free before January 1, 1863 with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. ”

One way many Black Americans celebrate the day is by celebrating General Order No. 3 – the relatively progressive order that promised formerly enslaved people “absolute equality of personal and property rights 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 huge parade, picnic and lectures.

Juneteenth celebrations began as early as 1866 in Texas and other Southern states, Berry says. Many Texans pushed for the holiday to be recognized by the state – a designation that was eventually adopted in 1980.

But where exactly does the term ‘Juneteenth’ come from? Boudreaux says it was a Houston newspaper that first abbreviated “June 19” to “Juneteenth” around 1890. “I guess it was a mouthful to say it all, 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.”

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Write to Simmone Shah at [email protected].