How Juneteenth Became Black Independence Day

By: John Donovan  | 

Juneteenth
June 19 (or Juneteenth) is considered Black Independence Day by many in the United States, as it was the day that many enslaved people in Texas were finally freed, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. HowStuffWorks

On June 19 every year, thousands of people across America — millions, more like it — come together to celebrate Juneteenth with parties and parades, prayer breakfasts and golf tournaments, cookouts and music.

And June 16, 2021, the House of Representatives voted 415-14 to make Juneteenth the 12th federal holiday. Earlier the Senate had unanimously approved this bill. President Joe Biden signed it into law June 17, 2021, and federal workers got June 18 off, as June 19, 2021, was a Saturday. It was the first new federal holiday created since Martin Luther King Day in 1983.

If you don't know what Juneteenth is, you're not alone. Not by a long shot.

"You'd be surprised. There are many students who get to my class and they sort of never learned about the history of enslavement, they've never learned about the civil rights movement," says Paula Austin, a professor of African American studies and history at Boston University. "I think I've had students who, because of where they're from or their families, know about Juneteenth and have actually participated in the celebrations. But most students come and they don't know."

freed enslaved men
The United States Navy employed thousands of freed enslaved people during the Civil War, like these men aboard the USS Vermont.
Historical/Corbis via Getty Images

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The History of Juneteenth

On June 19, 1865, more than two months after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, which all but ended the Civil War, a U.S. Army officer arrived in Galveston, Texas, with two momentous announcements: the end of the Civil War (word traveled relatively slowly in those days) and, with it, the end to slavery.

Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger passed on General Order No. 3, which said, in part:

The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection therefore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.

Nobody is really quite sure why it took so long for the news of emancipation to reach Texas. Several stories have been told through the years, though none have ever been confirmed, including one of a messenger who was killed while on his way to Texas to tell the news of freedom. Others believe owners of enslaved people simply never told them they were free. The most likely is that there were simply not enough troops to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, whether the enslaved people knew of it or not, so things remained status quo. That is until Maj. Gen. Granger showed up.

After Maj. Gen. Granger's announcement, some of the 250,000 enslaved in Texas immediately left for the promise of true freedom in the north, while others traveled to rejoin family members. "We all walked down the road singing and shouting to beat the band," one enslaved woman, Molly Harrell, said in "The Slave Narratives of Texas." Others stayed to find paying work in the fields and elsewhere.

Still that day marks what now is often called Black Independence Day, or the Black Fourth of July. It is the American celebration of freedom from slavery.

Juneteenth was first observed, unofficially, in Texas in 1866. It wasn't officially recognized as a holiday in any state until Texas did so in 1979. Now, every state in the U.S. recognizes it after South Dakota became the last state to finally declare it a holiday Feb. 11, 2022.

"On this day, we must confront the ugly parts of our history and honor the slaves who suffered and died under a repressive regime. We must also pay tribute to all those who had the strength and conviction to fight to end slavery and keep our Union together," U.S. Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ) said in 2018. "Juneteenth Independence Day is also an important moment to recognize how far we have come and take note of how far we have yet to go."

enslaved people
A group of enslaved people is seen on J.J. Smith's plantation in Beaufort, South Carolina.
Library of Congress

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Free Without Freedom

The original Juneteenth was hardly the "Black Independence Day" that it often is touted as today. After all, it came months after the Civil War ended and more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. By the time enslaved people were declared free in Texas, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution already had been passed by Congress and was well on its way to being ratified by the states.

Not all enslaved people in Texas were immediately freed, either. Some, held by defiant plantation owners hell-bent on hanging onto their way of life, were not emancipated until much later. Some masters already knew that the war was over before Granger arrived and still tried to hold on to them.

Some of the enslaved who tried to leave, historical reports show, were tracked down and killed. Many more stepped into a future of poverty, fear and uncertainty.

The blind spot that many Americans carry for Juneteenth may be due to a general ignorance of the holiday's history. It also may come from, as Austin suggests, a disinclination to completely face the country's past with slavery and its far-reaching and continuing aftermath.

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Celebrating Black Independence Day

Still, Juneteenth has persevered. Its observance waned through the years under the oppression of Jim Crow laws and racist attitudes, but the festivities that began in Texas eventually spread to more states, and the idea of commemorating Black independence picked up through the civil rights era of the 1960s. The parties continue today, for those who are aware enough to find them and to take part.

"The kinds of celebrations that I've seen and been a part of have been incredibly wonderful," Austin says. "They're about Black culture, they're about Black history, they're about the resistance and the resilience of the Black community."

Several years before Granger made his declaration in Galveston, famed American orator Frederick Douglass, himself a former enslaved man, spoke to an abolitionist group in New York about another independence day, the Fourth of July. "What, to the American slave, is your fourth of July," Douglass said, "I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim."

Juneteenth flag
The Juneteenth flag flies at Reading City Hall in Pennsylvania for the Juneteenth Holiday in 2021.
Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

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The Juneteenth Flag

To those who observe Juneteenth — despite its historically shaky beginnings and its still-unfulfilled pledge — the day still holds a promise. Of freedom. Independence. Equality. And they have a flag to fly that is full of symbols. It's red, white and blue, with a star in the middle. The design was conceived by activist Ben Haith, founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation (NJCF) in 1997. Here's what each element of the flag represents:

  • The star: It represents Texas, the last state where enslaved people were freed, but it also symbolizes the freedom of African Americans in all 50 states.
  • The burst: The outline around the star is inspired by a nova, an astronomical term that means "new star."
  • The arc: The curve extending across the width of the flag signifies a new horizon, i.e., the promise that lay ahead for Black Americans.
  • The colors: The red, white and blue are representational of the American flag, and are reminders that enslaved people and their descendants were and are Americans.

On Juneteenth these are ideas worth celebrating, more now than ever.

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Originally Published: Jun 12, 2020

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