The History Behind the Juneteenth Holiday

June 15, 2023Matt Fratus
Juneteenth coffee or die

An African American band at Emancipation Day celebration on June 19, 1900, in Austin, Texas. Photo courtesy of Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger took to his personal stationery in the Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, to handwrite General Order No. 3, a historic declaration ending slavery in the entire state that affected some 250,000 slaves. 

The nationwide announcement on June 19, 1865, turned the tide toward freedom and equality and became the basis of the “Juneteenth” holiday that came into fruition a year after Granger’s signature. 

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” reads Granger’s landmark order

gordon granger

Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger was a veteran of the Mexican-American War and the American Civil War. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“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.” 

Related: West Point's First Black Graduate Was Born a Slave, Led the Buffalo Soldiers

What is Juneteenth?

Despite President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that ratified the 13th Amendment and abolished slavery two and a half years earlier, Union Army forces couldn’t enforce the paper-issued order in the state of Texas where pockets of rebellion forces remained. Either the news traveled slowly through the state of Texas or the Confederacy refused to accept their new reality and needed to be taken by force. 

juneteenth celebration

Juneteenth Emancipation Day Celebration, June 19, 1900, Texas. Photo courtesy of Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

Granger, a Union Army officer with a mordant leadership style and a veteran of two wars and 10 major battles, arrived in Galveston with a reinforced army 2,000 soldiers strong. 

When Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered in Virginia on April 9, 1865, Granger’s order provided some hope for the formerly enslaved African Americans who celebrated the newfound triumphs and increased the momentum of their freedoms.

Assistance from the Freedmen’s Bureau — established in March 1865 to provide relief efforts for thousands of Black and white refugees displaced following the American Civil War — was delayed, and public opinion amongst white Texas elites disfavored Granger’s decision-making. He was relieved of his command on Aug. 6, 1865, six months after assuming the leadership position.

juneteenth celebration

A Juneteenth celebration in Emancipation Park in Houston's Fourth Ward, 1880. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Juneteenth” has many celebratory festivities that are rich with the traditions of Texas history. Rodeos, pick-up baseball games, horseback riding, and fishing are the most consistent festivities that occur during the celebrations. Barbecue, red foods, and red drinks — such as strawberry soda-pop, red velvet cake, and red punch — acknowledge the resilient legacy of enslaved peoples in America. 

Related: Buffalo Ranger’s Book Recalls the All-Black Special Operations Unit

When is Juneteenth?

The holiday was celebrated largely by African Americans in the Lone Star State. During the Civil Rights Movements in the 1950s and 1960s, the holiday received equal praise and backlash as racial tensions were at a pivotal moment in American history.

juneteenth order

A segment from the handwritten “Juneteenth” order issued by Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger telling people held in bondage in Texas that they were free. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

More than a century after the first celebration, Texas commissioned Juneteenth as an official state holiday in 1980.

On Thursday, June 18, 2020, archivists from the National Archives discovered what appears to be the original handwritten order, a monumental find considering all previous copies were prints. This news, coupled with Congress’ pursuit to make Juneteenth an official federal holiday, reinforce a message of freedom and remembrance for an important chapter in American history.

Related: A Complete List of Every Black Medal of Honor Recipient in U.S. History

Is Juneteenth a Federal Holiday?

In 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law. The decision officially recognized Juneteenth as a federal holiday after a years-long pursuit by many activists, including former Fort Worth, Texas, school teacher Opa Lee. 

michelle brooks-thompson juneteenth

Michelle Brooks-Thompson sings "Lift Every Voice and Sing" as part of a celebration of Juneteenth before a baseball game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox, Sunday, June 19, 2022, in Boston. AP photo by Steven Senne.

“We don’t want people to think that Juneteenth is a stopping point, because it isn’t,” Lee told The Associated Press in 2021. “It’s a beginning, and we’re going to address some of the disparities that we know exist.”

Lee also advocates for textbooks supplied to schools to have the complete history of US injustices within their pages. She hopes that teaching the past to children will avoid hateful actions in the future. 

A year later, days before the observance of Juneteenth, the Biden administration issued a statement. 

“Great nations do not ignore their most painful moments — they face them,” the 2022 White House press release said. “We grow stronger as a country when we honestly confront our past injustices, including the profound suffering and injustice wrought by slavery and generations of segregation and discrimination against Black Americans.” 

This story was originally published on June 19, 2020, and has been updated to reflect recent changes to the classification of the Juneteenth holiday.

Read Next: An Abbreviated History of Protests and Riots in the United States

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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