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This Day in History: The origins of Juneteenth

On this day in 1865, slaves in Galveston, Texas, learn that they are free. The anniversary of today’s events has come to be known as Juneteenth.

But why did it take Galveston so long to receive the news? The Civil War had been over for more than two months.

Okay, so the war was officially over, but pockets of fighting continued to erupt, even after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Moreover, Texas was at the remote ends of the then-existing country. It took time for news to travel.

Union soldiers didn’t reach Galveston until the middle of June. On June 19, Union Army General Gordon Granger finally stood on a Galveston balcony and read aloud an order emancipating slaves.

“This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves,” the order concluded, “and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”

It had been more than two years since Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation—and nearly three since he issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862.

Less is known about that preliminary proclamation, but let’s just say that it wasn’t exactly pretty.

In that preliminary announcement, Lincoln gave the Confederate states until January 1, 1863, to return to the Union. Any state that voluntarily returned, Lincoln promised, could keep its slaves. Meanwhile, those states refusing to comply would be subject to the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln intended to issue on the first day of the New Year.

No state returned to the fold in the months that followed. Instead, on January 1, Lincoln issued his formal Emancipation Proclamation, a document that freed slaves in the Confederate states, but did not free the slaves in the northern states. (Yes, there were some.)

The Emancipation Proclamation, then, was limited by its own terms: It didn’t free northern slaves, and it could not be enforced in the South. As it turned out, many slaves in places like Galveston didn’t even know that the proclamation had been issued.

And that’s why Galveston slaves didn’t learn they were free until June 19, 1865.

Not that everything magically changed on that day, because it didn’t. Some slave owners didn’t deliver the news to their slaves right away. Many slaves continued to work long after they were technically free.

“‘The way it was explained to me,’” one descendant later said, “‘the 19th of June wasn’t the exact day the N*gro was freed. But that’s the day they told them that they was free . . . And my daddy told me that they whooped and hollered and bored holes in trees with augers and stopped it up with powder and light and that would be their blast for the celebration.’”

June 19 became a rallying date of sorts, at least in Texas. At first, it was known as Emancipation Day, and it provided “an occasion for gathering lost family members, measuring progress against freedom and inculcating rising generations with the values of self-improvement and racial uplift,” as historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. describes. The Emancipation Proclamation was read and re-read. Over time, celebrations began to involve barbecues, sports, marches, or prayer services.

As families moved around, Juneteenth celebrations spread across the country, but perhaps its most notable observance came in 1968, when the anniversary was observed in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Since then, the holiday has continued to grow and most states have officially adopted it.

Today, then, is a reminder of the promise of America: Liberty and equality for all. But it is also a reminder of how very far we’ve come.

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