On Juneteenth, we celebrate one of America’s greatest and most hotly-contested achievements: the emancipation of enslaved people. On it, we look back to June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger announced to the people of Texas that “all slaves are free.”
Most Americans know that Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863; but as a war measure designed to weaken the other side in the Civil War, he could only enforce it where the Union Army was in control. That meant that enslaved people’s freedom was not secure until the war was won. The last battles of the war ended in May of 1865, which should have done the trick; but in many places, slaveholders refused to accept black men’s and women’s freedom. Texas was one of those places: many slaveholders either kept emancipation secret or refused to let their former slaves leave. The proclamation of June 19 didn’t immediately solve those problems, but it told people that the federal government was willing to face down white resistance in the fight for freedom.
On Juneteenth, we celebrate freedom as a process, not something that happened the moment Lincoln put pen to paper. In the months leading up to June 19 and the decades thereafter, black men and women had to fight to make emancipation real; Juneteenth, which black men and women were sometimes whipped for observing, celebrates that fight. Freedom also had little meaning without a republican government fighting for it; Juneteenth, which grew into a national holiday even as the government abandoned black people to Jim Crow and inequality, celebrates that fight.
Finally, Juneteenth reminds us that freedom is incomplete without equality. The Emancipation Proclamation said nothing about equality; Granger’s proclamation, by contrast, explicitly mandated “an absolute equality of personal rights” between whites and blacks. The people who celebrated it in 1865 and 1866 were celebrating the possibilities of the kind of equality they had never had. By celebrating it today, we recognize the continued need to imbue the freedom black Americans fought for with the equality that America promised them.
Patrick W. O’Neil
Associate Professor of History
- Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “What Is Juneteenth?”
- Mitchell Alan Katchun, Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915
- Annette Gordon-Reed, On Juneteenth