June 19th — or “Juneteenth” — is a time of celebration and reflection, and serves as a yearly reminder of what once enslaved people in Texas endured more than 150 years ago. On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, hailed as the end of slavery in the United States. Yet, word did not reach those enslaved in the Lone Star State for another two-and-a-half years.
The June 19, 1865, notification of enslaved Texans' newfound freedom — delivered by Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger — is the inspiration behind the holiday that originated in Galveston, Texas. Short for "June Nineteenth," the holiday soared in popularity during protest movements for racial justice in summer 2020, highlighting Juneteenth's continued importance and relevance today. Juneteenth became a statewide holiday in Texas in 1980, the first state to officially recognize it. And in June 2021, Juneteenth became recognized as a federal holiday.
While recognition of Juneteenth is more widespread than ever, a look back into history underscores generations of resistance against the men and women who struggled to achieve their freedom. After receiving the belated news of their unenforced emancipation (in June 1865, slavery was still legal and practiced in the Union border states of Delaware and Kentucky until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865), enslaved Black people were left to navigate their change in status. What followed became known as "the scatter," in which droves of formerly enslaved people left Texas in search of family members or to what they had hoped would be more support and opportunity in the North. As a result, many were reportedly beaten or lynched by former slave owners who were displeased with the sudden departure of the people once considered their property.
That was followed by the onslaught of segregation laws that affected nearly every aspect of Black life, including the ability to gather and celebrate the Juneteenth holiday. For example, the newly freed were not legally permitted to use any public places or parks. In one 1870s act of resistance and resilience, formerly enslaved people pooled together $800 and purchased 10 acres of land in Houston. It would become the site of their annual Juneteenth celebrations — and the only public park and swimming pool in the Houston area open to Black Americans until the 1950s. Later named "Emancipation Park," the site was renovated and reopened in 2016. It stands today, and after a pandemic pause in 2020, will again be the site of 2021 Juneteenth celebrations.
Though inspiring, that small victory and others like it were no match for the hurdles freed Black people faced post-slavery. In the years that followed emancipation, state governments across the South instituted laws known as Black Codes, which granted certain legal rights to Black people, including the right to marry, own property, and sue in court. At the same time, Black Codes also made it illegal for Black people to serve on juries, testify against white people, serve in state militias, be unemployed, or start a job without the approval of the previous employer. Black Codes also required Black sharecroppers and tenant farmers to sign annual labor contracts to pay rent to white landowners through a portion of their crop. Those who refused could be arrested or hired out to work for others. Such inequity relegated many southern Black Americans to a life of rural poverty, which some historians argue is the root of economic inequality that persists for many Black Americans today.
Still, newly freed Black people embraced the spirit of Juneteenth, and pressed on in search of a better life and future. The hard times drove many to pursue deep spirituality and seek out religious grounding, helping develop the Black church as a centerpiece of Black culture and community; not only as communal worship centers, but also as an epicenter of education, political engagement, and calls for social justice that would be integral to the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Many Black Americans went on to establish schools at every level, from grade schools to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), such as the Tuskegee Institute, Fisk University, and Howard University.
The Freedmen's Bureau, a government agency created to aid freedmen and freedwomen, would establish hospitals and 3,000 schools across the South over its five-year existence. The struggle would continue through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Ku Klux Klan's campaign of terror — all culminating in nonviolent direct action that swept the country in the '50s and '60s.
On the heels of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, historians assert that every generation has grappled with its own brand of racial reckoning, each bringing the nation closer to the American ideal of "liberty and justice for all."
The essence of the Juneteenth holiday and its origins serve as another nudge — a mile marker of sorts — of how far the nation has come, and a reminder of the work yet to be done.
Comcast NBCUniversal’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement platform honors the legacy and impact of America’s civil rights champions. Watch more than 18 hours of firsthand accounts and historical moments, online, and on Xfinity On Demand.