Dating back to 1865, Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration to commemorate the end of slavery in the US. Although President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was established two and a half years earlier in 1863, it had little to no impact on Texas and other Southern states that had few numbers of Union troops. Texas did not free their slaves until June 19th, 1865 when Major General Gordon Granger and his Union soldiers arrived in Texas with the news that the war had ended. Other stories have emerged throughout history to explain why there was a two-year gap, such as a murdered messenger, the news was withheld from slaves by their masters, troops waited until a cotton harvest was over, etc. But none of these tales were ever confirmed true.
Juneteenth is typically celebrated with festivals throughout the month of June. Most festivals will have activities such as Rodeos, fishing, baseball, and barbecuing. In addition, the celebration focuses on education and self-improvement. It’s very typical for festivals to include guest speakers as well as elders to share their stories of the past. Prayer service is also a common practice during this time.
Even though the end of slavery was a major event in US history, Juneteenth is rarely celebrated outside the African American community. In the past, there have even been cases of government resistance by barring the use of public property for the festivities. Once African-Americans became landowners, they donated or dedicated land for these celebrations. In addition to the lack of land for the Juneteenth celebrations, a majority of schools do not teach Juneteenth in their history classes. The discussion on freed slaves tends to end with the Emancipation Proclamation. There have even been history textbooks published without the acknowledgment of Juneteenth.
These examples of systematic resistance as well as economic and cultural shifts in society led to the decline of Juneteenth celebrations in the early 1900s. However, it began to regain momentum during the Civil Rights movement. The fight for racial equality by African-Americans connected them to the struggles of their ancestors and their history. There were main cases of young protestors wearing Juneteenth freedom buttons during the 50s and 60s. Additionally, after the Poor Peoples March to Washington D.C. in 1968, there was an increase in Juneteenth celebrations across the US. Eventually in 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas.
In the present day, Juneteenth has experienced a huge growth throughout the country. National institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Henry Ford Museum and others have begun sponsoring Juneteenth-centered activities. Additionally, Juneteenth no longer focuses solely on the freedom of slaves but also promotes the appreciation and teaching of African American history and culture. It celebrates the African American freedom and achievement while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures.