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Juneteenth Celebrates Freedom for All

On June 19, 1865—exactly 155 years ago this coming Friday—Major Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union Army issued his General Orders, Number 3, at the Headquarters District of Texas, in Galveston. The Orders begin:

“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. “

Granger could not have known—could hardly have imagined—that this statement, which effectively established the Union Army’s authority over the people of Texas, would be the basis for a holiday: “Juneteenth” (“June” plus “nineteenth”),  today the most popular annual celebration of emancipation from slavery in the United States.

That Granger was late in bringing this news to Texas is unsurprising; there were none of the communications tools we use today for instant access to information. By the time Granger made his pronouncement, “the Confederate capital in Richmond had fallen; the “Executive” to whom he referred, President Lincoln, was dead; and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was well on its way to ratification,” wrote Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his article, “What Is Juneteenth?”, published first in the online magazine,  The Root.

It was the news that many had been awaiting their entire lives. General Granger’s announcement put into effect the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued more than two and a half years earlier, on Jan. 1, 1863, by President Lincoln.

Juneteenth, sometimes called “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day,” is celebrated across the U.S. with parades, picnics, and family gatherings. This year, Juneteenth has taken on added significance because of the filmed killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man who died in the custody of the Minneapolis Police last month. Floyd’s horrific killing has shocked the consciences of people across the country—and throughout the world.

Juneteenth has been proposed as a national holiday going back more 100 years. Texas, in 1979, became the first state to designate Juneteenth as a holiday, though to little more than symbolic effect. But since that time, 41 other states and the District of Columbia have taken steps to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or holiday observance.

Across the country, throughout our nation, this year’s observance of Juneteenth will have resonance for all peoples. It will remind us, hopefully, of our shared humanity.


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