Juneteenth: The history behind the day

Eilish O'Sullivan

Each year on June 19, Texans commemorate the day news of the abolition of slavery reached the Lone Star State.

The Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery, went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863. Texas was the last state to end slavery, abolishing it when Union General Gordon Granger came to Galveston with the announcement more than two years later. 

It was not until the end of the Civil War, when the Confederacy was defeated, that Texans learned of the Proclamation, said Benjamin Wright, associate director for communications at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. 

“Juneteenth celebrates when this news came to Texas,” said Wright, a history graduate student. “It’s not just the news of freedom, but actually the reality of it.”

Wright said even though the former slaves were then free, they faced a plethora of other challenges, such as financial hardships and the inability to obtain land. 

“In Texas, and in other southern states, there were several generations of slaves working on this land,” Wright said. “It was the sweat of their brows, their broken bodies, that had made the land profitable.”

At the time of Granger’s announcement, there were more than 250,000 slaves in Texas. Juneteenth is a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth,” and the day is the oldest-known celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

In 1980, Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as an official state holiday through the efforts of Texas state Rep. Al Edwards, D-Houston. 

“Every year, we must remind successive generations that this event triggered a series of events that, one by one, defines the challenges and responsibilities of successive generations,” said Edwards, sponsor of the bill, according to CNN. “That’s why we need this holiday.” 

People celebrate Juneteenth with parades, rodeos, street fairs, cookouts, historical reenactments and “Miss Juneteenth” contests. Some other traditions include oral histories and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Emancipation Parks, in both Austin and Houston, were purchased specifically for Juneteenth celebrations. Now, Austin’s Juneteenth celebration occurs in Rosewood Park, and the land where Emancipation Park was became the first African-American public housing complex in the country. 

“The economic, social and political climate for African-Americans in Texas was precarious and dangerous,” said Nakia Parker, a history and African and African diaspora studies graduate student. “It was a remarkable and brave thing to buy land to celebrate Juneteenth so openly, to say the least.” 

Although the day is seen as the end of slavery in the United States, Juneteenth is still not a national holiday. 

Parker said she thinks Juneteenth is celebrated more locally than nationally because the conception of slavery being a brutal institution that only occurred in the South. 

“The more frank discussions we have about slavery being an integral part of American history … the more Juneteenth will be more likely recognized like other celebrations,” Parker said.