“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? 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. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”
-Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”, 1852
In only a few weeks, millions of Americans will gather in backyards, donned in patriotic clothing, to carry out familiar traditions in celebration of Independence Day. But many of those who participate in the celebration of the country’s independence often miss another holiday that is equally significant to an entire demographic of Americans who were also present at the formation of the country — though they weren’t considered countrymen at the time.
June 19, or “Juneteenth,” marks the day that all black slaves became aware that slavery was abolished in America.
The belief that the slaves were freed at once and became citizens is all too popular — newly freed slaves did not officially become American citizens until the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868. The reality is a bit more complex.
There are various misunderstandings regarding certain documents and their effectiveness in granting freedom to the enslaved populace, specifically President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect January 1, 1863. While the document declared freedom for slaves, the words “are, and henceforward shall be free” did not reach the corners of the nation until two years after they were written.
The arrival of nearly 2,000 Union troops in Galveston Bay, Texas on June 19, 1865 was quite the scene, but the words that are celebrated on this day of independence, spoken out by one Major General Gordon Granger, are remembered with less grandeur than that of the Emancipation Proclamation:
“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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
-General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865
It was with these orders that the 250,000 enslaved peoples of Texas, one of the final pockets of slavery in the country, discovered that they were free. The news was met with shock and celebration, and, over the years, the celebrations of the day became bigger and bigger.
But even as those celebrations grow, the day struggles to gain the attention that Independence Day or even Presidents’ Day receives.
Ronald Myers Sr., chair of the National Juneteenth Holiday Campaign, has expressed his desire to help the day become recognized as an official American holiday. Others have also voiced their support for the nationalization of the holiday. But while activists work on the future, it’s worth praising how far the holiday has come already.
Juneteenth is now celebrated in black communities across the country with cookouts, parades and other forms of community fun and pride!
More information about Juneteenth is available via PBS and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.