Emancipation Day: The Origins of Juneteenth | History Hit

Emancipation Day: The Origins of Juneteenth

Shannon Callahan

22 Dec 2021
A Juneteenth celebration in Emancipation Park, 1880.
Image Credit: Public Domain

When the American Civil War began in 1861, years of tension between northern and southern states had reached a breaking point, exacerbated by disputes about states’ rights, western expansion and slavery.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring freedom to enslaved people across the Confederate states – the north had mostly abolished slavery by the start of the war. However, news of this declaration of freedom would not reach parts of the south until after the last major battle was fought in 1865.

The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, under the leadership of Robert E. Lee, surrendered on 9 April 1865. News of surrender and emancipation spread through the south, making its way to one of the last strongholds of slavery, Texas, in June of that year. Upon its announcement in Galveston, Texas, celebrations erupted, and the holiday known as Juneteenth was born.

The last battle

On 8 April 1865, Union and Confederate armies met at Appomattox station in Virginia. The southerners were waiting on supplies that the northerners were intent on intercepting, as targeting railroads was a key strategy throughout the war.

Union soldiers quickly gained control of supplies and rations at Appomattox station, and Confederate troops retreated towards Lynchburg, Virginia, in hopes of reinforcements reaching them instead of more Union troops. However, this line of retreat was blocked, so Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia attacked.

Federal soldiers at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865.

Image Credit: Public Domain

On 9 April 1865, early fighting ensued, and Union infantry arrived. Lee and his battle-worn soldiers were vastly outnumbered and out-supplied, so Lee was forced to surrender. This surrender effectively marks the end of the American Civil War, as it triggered a wave of surrenders across the Confederacy. Though some Confederate leaders did not receive the news of this surrender until summer, the Battle at Appomattox Station and Courthouse is considered the last major battle fought in the war.

Abolition in the south

Though there were political formalities to finalise the cessation of war after Lee’s surrender, the issue of slavery was still a critically important aspect of the war to be resolved in 1865. When the Emancipation Proclamation declared all enslaved persons free in 1863, many formerly enslaved people sought refuge behind Union lines as soldiers moved through the south.

As the war ended, Union soldiers continued their mission to ensure the message of abolition reached the farthest corners of the Confederacy, freeing more than 3 million enslaved people. As the last battles were fought and Confederate generals surrendered, there was one place in particular where slavery had been relatively unaffected throughout the war: Texas.

The significance of Galveston, Texas

The people (of Texas) are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free’ — General Gordon Granger, The Galveston Daily News (June 21, 1865)

Image Credit: The Galveston Daily News / Public Domain

In Texas, there was no large-scale fighting throughout the war, nor was there a significant Union presence. In fact, many enslavers from other southern states moved to Texas during the war as it was understood to be a stronghold for slavery. After Lee’s surrender in April, it took two months for Union leaders to arrive in Texas and announce freedom for some 250,000 enslaved people.

General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, in June to read ‘General Orders No. 3’, which proclaimed that the enslavers of Texas were now to follow the orders of the proclamation and release from bondage those they held in slavery. Though many enslavers delayed emancipation until after harvest season, celebrations broke out amongst the newly freed black citizens upon Granger’s visit, and thus, Juneteenth was born.

The first Juneteenth was celebrated with music, food and prayer. Though first observed in Texas alone, the celebrations would grow to commemorate the long journey to freedom. Formal abolition came in December 1865 when the 13th Amendment was ratified in the US Constitution.

On 19 June 1866, the first “Jubilee Day” was organised in Texas to mark the first anniversary of freedom. This day would become known as Juneteenth – a combination of June and Nineteenth – and in the decades to come, Juneteenth would spread across the United States and continue to be celebrated through music, food, prayer and other activities.

Juneteenth today

As the American Civil War ended, the Reconstruction era began. What was initially a hopeful time in American history to rebuild a unified nation proved difficult, as tensions continued between the north and south. Civil rights laws, in effect determining what rights black citizens would be granted in America, resulted in political disputes and even the birth of the Ku Klux Klan.

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However, Juneteenth celebrations continued within black communities and expanded across the United States and the African diaspora. For some, Juneteenth represents the struggle for freedom in all nations which once enslaved Africans. It is a day of joyous celebration, of mourning those lost, and of looking towards the future.

In 1979, Texas made Juneteenth an official state holiday, and in 2021, Congress passed a resolution to make it a national holiday. The story of Juneteenth, once mostly passed down through black communities, is now firmly situated within the wider US history.

Shannon Callahan