In 1863, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared more than three million slaves living in the Confederates states to be free. However, it was not until Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19th, 1865 that the news of freedom reached the African Americans. The former slaves began to party and celebrate with feasting, song, and dance. These celebrations continued throughout the years, becoming known as the holiday of Juneteenth.  While Texas was the first state to recognize the date in 1980, today, all states recognize Juneteenth through celebrations or remembrance and reflection.


Early days of Juneteenth celebrations

Juneteenth is considered the longest-running African American holiday. Early celebrations included baseball, fishing, and rodeos. African Americans were often prohibited from using public facilities, and as a result, they were commonly held at churches or near water. Some freed slaves even pooled their money together to purchase land to host the celebrations. These celebrations also consisted of large meals and people wearing their best clothing. It was common for former slaves and descendants to travel to Galveston. Early traditions included a public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, singing traditional songs, and readings of works by noted African American writers.

Juneteenth hitting a snag

In the early 20th century, political and economic forces led to a decline in Juneteenth Celebrations. From 1890-1908, former Confederate states passed new constitutions and amendments that effectively suppressed black people to exclude them from the political process. White-dominated states passed Jim Crow laws, enforcing racial segregation and disenfranchised political and economic gains by black people during the Reconstruction period. The decline in celebrations was a result of these laws, making higher classed blacks ashamed of their slave past and aspire to assimilate into the mainstream culture. The Great Depression also forced many black people off farms and into the cities to find work and made it hard to take the day off to celebrate. All was not lost, as the Civil Rights Movement caused a resurgence of the holiday.

Resurgence of Juneteenth

The Civil Rights Movement caused a revival of Juneteenth as black people began tying their struggle to that of ending slavery. However, it wasn’t until 1974 in Houston that large-scale celebrations began again. In the late 1970s, the Texas Legislature introduced Juneteenth as a state holiday and became an official state holiday in 1980. In the late 1980s, celebrations of Juneteenth grew to include California, Wisconsin, Illinois, Georgia, and Washington, D.C. By 2002, eight states recognized Juneteenth as a holiday. In 2008 nearly half of the states observed the holiday as a ceremonial observance. This trend continued to 2020 when all states and the District of Columbia recognized Juneteenth.

Finally, Juneteenth has become officially recognized throughout the states by celebrations or remembrances. Although it took a while for news of freedom to reach slaves in Texas, when it did, celebrations started in earnest. Early celebrations included picnics, readings, and song and dance.  While the first celebrations began in Galveston, Texas, it started to spread throughout the Southern states and eventually became recognized by all states.