Juneteenth is June 19

What is Juneteenth?

Mary Elliott, Curator of American Slavery

Juneteenth is a significant date in American history and the African American experience. The name is a play on the date of June 19th, 1865. On that day, the Union Army made its way into Galveston, TX under the leadership of General Gordon Granger, and he announced to the people of Texas that all enslaved African Americans were free.

Even though we know that the Emancipation Proclamation freed African Americans in rebelling states (Texas being one of them, from as early as it when the Proclamation went into effect on January 1st, 1863) and we know that the Civil War had ended in April of 1865, it took a while for freedom to make its way to the western most rebelling state.  Although there were enslavers who were aware of the implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation, it wasn’t until June 19th, 1865 that it was actually enforced with the Union Army. June 19th freed enslaved people in the rebelling states, it did not free enslaved people throughout the nation.

Keep in mind, there were still border states which were still part of the Union. They had not seceded from the Union, and they still maintained slavery. Maryland, for example, was one of them. It took the creation of the Emancipation Proclamation, the end of the Civil War, and the passage of the 13th Amendment to finally end slavery throughout the nation. The Reconstruction Amendments are significant as they came into being after the end of the Civil War. They include the 13th Amendment that ended slavery; the 14th Amendment provides citizenship, due process and equal protection; and the 15th Amendment provides the opportunity to vote and hold office.


Angela Tate, Curator of African American Women’s History

Juneteenth does have its roots in that specific moment, but I also see similarities to emancipation celebrations across the African diaspora and across the nation.

From this post-Civil War period–and well into the early 20th century–there were several commemorative events around emancipation, not just in Texas. Other states have emancipation days, such as Mississippi on May 8th, Florida on May 20th, Washington D.C. on April 16th, Kentucky on August 8th, and Maryland on November 1st. The Emancipation Proclamation Exposition in October 1913, was created by W.E.B. Du Bois and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to serve the purpose of racial uplift and to celebrate Black progress over the fifty years between 1863 and 1913. It involved not just traditional entertainment, but also speeches, pageants, and poetry recitations, as well as discussions about contemporary events and lynching. There has always been an impulse amongst African Americans to commemorate freedom and to think of themselves as connected to diasporic celebrations of freedom, such as the Emancipation days in Martinique Jamaica, Barbados, and the Bahamas, and other nations in the Caribbean.

When I think about Juneteenth, I think less about it being a specifically American, but how it connects African American thoughts about freedom and emancipation to the same notions across the African diaspora. There is this impulse towards commemorating, celebrating, and remembering freedom. African Americans have always used these moments of memory to think about where the community has come from and what we’re pursuing and striving towards, as well as taking the time to pass down history and culture.

Juneteenth is a time to reflect. What does it mean to really celebrate our freedom? What does it mean to be free in moments where freedom is conditional, and freedom is always a challenge? Juneteenth is a moment to think about freedom being conditional freedom and it is something that we must continuously strive and fight for.


Kelly E. Navies, Museum Specialist of Oral History

I like to think of Juneteenth as a celebration of freedom, of family, and of joy that emerged from this cauldron of the war. After hundreds of years of enslavement, and the intense post-Civil War era, all of these emotions and feelings had built up to a particular point. Then, General Granger arrives with his troops (some of whom were members of the United States Colored troops) to announce that they will enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.

We know this wasn’t news to these enslaved people. There were channels through which they had heard about the Emancipation Proclamation, but there was nothing that they could do without the Union troops to enforce it. So, now they’re able to enjoy this moment and recognize what they’ve come through. It was such a difficult time, but there was a refusal to be held down by the past and a determination to move forward.

Even though they were confronted with the challenges of racism and oppression from the very moment that freedom was announced, they still decided, ‘we need to buy land, because we need a space to celebrate this freedom.’ As soon as that very following year you see the emergence of Emancipation parks all throughout the country. It starts in Houston, but you find them in different cities throughout the country. We chose this moment to savor, to see where we’ve come from, to chart where we were going to go, and to relish the strength of our families and communities.

Juneteenth has evolved over the years to mirror shifts in our struggle. Sometimes it wanes, but it reemerges. After World War II, we have this new sense of pride and the Great Migration started to carry Juneteenth throughout the United States. You see it come up again during the Civil Rights movement of the late 60s and into Solidarity Day at the Poor People’s Campaign here in Washington D.C. in 1968.

Fifty years ago, and from that moment, Solidarity Day (on June 19th, 1968), you saw activists bring it back to their communities where it developed a whole new grassroots identity. That’s around the time that my family started celebrating it. Even though my family and I didn’t have ties to Texas, my activist father brought it with us from Detroit to California. We don’t celebrate July 4th, we celebrate Juneteenth.

At its very core, Juneteenth is this affirmation that we are here, and we will continue to be here. We will continue to struggle in the face of many challenges..

Who celebrates Juneteenth?

Mary Elliott, Curator of American Slavery

Juneteenth, to me, is really a day of commemoration that should give everyone pause. As my colleagues have mentioned, it’s not just an event that has a local impact. It has a regional, national, and an international impact. The announcement of General Order Number 3, issued by General Granger ( a Union Army officer), speaks to where society was at that time, despite coming out of slavery.

“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. The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere,” General Order Number 3, issued by Union General Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865

The former “slaves” and “masters” now have the relationships of employers and employees. They are expected to stay “in their current homes,” which were essentially their slave cabins. And they were expected to not engage in “idleness.” It breaks down those notions of how society viewed black people at that time. You already had to, as a black person, contend with how the Confederacy viewed you, but now you see that the people who helped to secure your freedom view you as a second-class citizen. What follows, as my colleague Kelly so insightfully mentioned when talking about the importance of Reconstruction, is this notion that you were still expected to work out in the fields. You were not expected to pursue, as the Declaration of Independence states, life, liberty, and happiness.

We celebrate July 4th. However, we really give pause to commemorate Juneteenth – reflecting on the moment, and thinking about the opportunities that freedom presented for black people. At the time there were not only legal restraints (until the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendment) but there were also societal restraints. Black people were seen as second-class citizens, and it’s an issue that we’re still struggling with today.

Juneteenth is for everyone to pause and really think about the meaning and manifestation of freedom.


Angela Tate, Curator of African American Women’s History

Juneteenth is for everyone, but I have a particular interest in how Black women have been the keepers of the flame, the griots, and the public historians in the black community. Black women are integral to continuing these celebrations. As three Black women having this conversation, we can’t help but think critically about freedom and emancipation. We are also deeply aware of the double question of freedom and emancipation being both Black and women.

I want to focus on how vital Black women’s groups have been to Juneteenth celebrations. Not just Black women who have been members of the NAACP, but Black women who have been a part of Black sororities, women’s groups such as The Links Inc. and The Girl Friends Inc. Also, we cannot forget the strength and influence of the National Council of Women, and how this organization has been a backbone of the Black community for decades.

Another facet to reflect upon is how memory in history is passed down through Black mothers. Pamela Walker,  Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, New York Historical Society, wrote about how Black women in the 19th century, in this post-Civil War period, this emancipation, this reconstruction period, used their own bodies as ways to connect with the history of freedom and emancipation, as well as Juneteenth in the South. This happened not only at churches, but also civic celebrations and events. Black women used these moments as an opportunity to educate, support, and build the younger generations. They saw their role as keepers of the flame to remind others in the Black community to remember where we’ve come from, and to also pay attention to what women did and their role in fighting for freedom and struggle.

I also note the importance of cooking and how vital women’s nourishment is. Black women have been in the kitchens creating meals for the nourishment of the Black community for centuries. Food is a very important part of Juneteenth. Women in the kitchen put all of their love, their memory, and their strength into the food that they’re making. Meals are a part of passing down Juneteenth for everyone.

I’m also thinking about recent conversations within the past year about Juneteenth. Beyoncé released a song called “Black Parade.” Annette Gordon-Reed’s recently published a book, called On Juneteenth, reflects on her family history in Texas. She has an article in The New Yorker, where she recalled a conversation she had with her great-grandmother who said it was vital. It was always a big deal.

Juneteenth should be important for everyone. It’s not just celebrating Black freedom. It’s celebrating how important Black people have been to the formation of the United States. How Black celebrations of freedom are a reminder of how contingent freedom is for everyone. If we aren’t free no one else is free.


Kelly E. Navies, Museum Specialist of Oral History

As my colleagues have stated so well, Juneteenth is for everyone who believes in freedom, and who believes in creating a new world. You will see with the spread of Juneteenth throughout the country to different places.

Juneteenth is for the generations to come together – the children and the elders – to share their history. My hometown of Berkeley, California has had a citywide celebration since 1986, for example. Juneteenth gives us a space to share art and scholarship, such as the work of Annette Gordon Reed. You might see someone, for example, reenact Frederick Douglass’s speech, What to the Slave is the 4th of July. You would see young people sharing the poetry of our legendary poets, such as Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Claude McKay. Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan and many others. That’s certainly what we would do. We used that time to educate and to get the youth involved in in the history and literature of their community. There would also be original poetry, dance and performance art.

This idea of space is so important. When communities came together to raise money to start Emancipation parks, it was no small thing. You see even today that we still have to struggle for these spaces. In Oakland, CA there was a big conflict a couple of years ago about having Black people gather around Lake Merritt to socialize. The people came out and said ‘no, we’re not giving up this space because it’s important for us to come together and love each other as a community and glorify who we are as African Americans.’

You see that again in Washington DC along the U Street corridor with the protests that have evolved around Go-Go music in the last two years. One sector of the community tried to ban Go-Go Music and tell a company to turn their music down where it had been playing it for years. The music became a focal point for the community to come together and say, ‘this is who we are.’

Juneteenth is another one of those ways that African Americans come together throughout the African diaspora. They are saying, ‘We’re here. We’re occupying this space. We love who we are. We love our people. We want to pass on our history and culture to our children and we intend to move on into the future.’

Juneteenth is celebrated, again, by Africans all over the world. You have Día de Los Negros in Mexico, for those African Americans who fled Texas and went into Mexico and you have it expressed in different ways all over.

Why is Juneteenth important?

Mary Elliott, Curator of American Slavery

Juneteenth is important, because it reminds us of what we came through and what we can achieve.

As my colleagues mentioned, the reason General Order Number 3 existed and the Union Army fought to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, is because slavery existed. It’s important to remember what we went through and that we were able to get out of the bondage of slavery as a nation. It’s an important reminder and it’s important that we understand what it took. It’s also important that the Juneteenth holiday survives. It allows each generation to reflect what more there is to do. Juneteenth places Black people at the center of the conversation about freedom, it’s meaning and manifestation in this nation.

July 4th is about liberty, but it was an imperfect liberty, because slavery still legally existed in the nation. I personally recognize both holidays because these are important moments in our shared history.

We should regularly consider the evolution of the meaning of freedom as we look at certain moments in the nation’s past and present. Someone can deeply appreciate why Juneteenth was important for the Poor People’s Campaign. Why Juneteenth is important in relation to the events that happened this past summer with the death of George Floyd. Why Juneteenth is important when we think about enforcing our rights to vote and how we define citizenship in this nation.

Juneteenth should really be a rallying call for all of us to think about the meaning of freedom, particularly regarding African Americans, as well as to the nation and the rest of the world.


Angela Tate, Curator of African American Women’s History

Juneteenth doesn’t feel fixed like July 4th. July 4th feels fixed in 1776, whereas Juneteenth always feels fluid and always willing to be adaptable to the incoming and upcoming generations. It always feels relevant to this continuous quest and fight for freedom and equality.

I’ve seen a lot of tweets over the past year from African Americans, African immigrants to the United States, West Indians and how they tie Juneteenth to their own country’s celebrations. I remember seeing a tweet from a Nigerian asking others from Nigeria to wish them a happy Juneteenth. They said, “I’m going to block you if you say happy 4th of July.” I remember another tweet from 2015 where someone said, “I celebrate Juneteenth and Nigerian independence as my independence days.” They don’t even celebrate the 4th of July. It’s not relevant to them.

This is not just a holiday that is fixed and has one meaning. It has a multiplicity of meanings to people of African descent in the United States. They also see it as relevant to Africa, the Caribbean, and any other place where there’s an African diasporic community. It’s a continuous struggle, a continuous fight, a continuous place of remembrance.

Juneteenth is also a site for political knowledge. It’s a time to recognize that you need to be registered to vote. You need to know what’s going on in your own city. You need to take control of your civic duty.

Again, Juneteenth, is not this fixed holiday as the 4th of July is. It’s not a neutral holiday where you just show up. Juneteenth requires you to be present, in the moment, and very specific about why you are showing up to celebrate it. It’s important for everyone to remember where it came from, but also how it has developed in other parts of the African diaspora within and outside of the United States.


Kelly E. Navies, Museum Specialist of Oral History

So much has been said by my sisters preceding me, but what I think about when I reflect on that question is the 1619 project. There has been so much resistance to the 1619 project, which was an attempt to bring an understanding of slavery, and the history of slavery to the nation and the classrooms of America. But in places like Texas, where Juneteenth was born, you see the strongest resistance to this progressive curriculum.

As the daughter of a teacher and as a former teacher myself, I know that many of our students throughout the country are not learning this history. They don’t learn about Juneteenth in their classrooms. There are pockets, like Berkeley and Washington DC, where they’ve implemented a black history curriculum in the high schools, but there’s resistance throughout the country. Juneteenth facilitates the transmission of our history and our culture. If you are a child that isn’t in one of those towns and you aren’t learning this in your classroom, you can learn about Juneteenth in your city’s parade, or in your friend’s home.

When my family held Juneteenth celebrations in Oakland Bay Area, we would open our home to everyone in the community. We would have people spilling out of our parking lot and into our backyard. We would play our African drums and the police would show up when we got complaints about the noise. The police would come every year. I mean, seriously, this was a big deal!  My dad didn’t care, because he owned that house outright, and he knew that we had the right to celebrate our freedom. However, not everyone has access to the space needed to exercise this right.

Juneteenth is here so that we can teach people who don’t always have access to this knowledge in their homes or in their schools. It gives us a space, not only physical, not only external, but a space in our hearts and in our minds.