Juneteenth: Honoring the African American Spirit

Juneteenth: Honoring the African American Spirit

Juneteenth: Honoring the African American Spirit

"...in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free." Those words, part of an executive order from the President of the United States, are words that prompted a sacred and significant day in African American history.

Juneteenth marks the day that the last enslaved people in the United States were officially freed. It is a day to reflect, remember, honor, and celebrate the legacy of those who endured the horrors of slavery, the many who have fought for our civil rights, and the ones who continue to stand for advancement and equality. 

Let's take a look at the timeline, including the first step toward ending slavery to where we are today in commemorating freedom and celebrating the rise of African Americans.

The Emancipation Proclamation: A Stepping Stone

On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It declared that all slaves in Confederate territories were to be set free. Unfortunately, despite the Emancipation Proclamation becoming an important symbol of the struggle for civil rights and equality in America, it wasn't an all-encompassing solution to the scourge of slavery.

The proclamation did not actually free any enslaved in Union-held territory or states that remained loyal to the Union. The language of the proclamation named slavery illegal, specifically and only in states that were in active rebellion against the United States; this meant Confederate territories. In addition, it would take time for many Confederate territories to receive word and comply with the newly expressed policy of the United States government.

The Emancipation Proclamation was a significant step towards the eventual abolition of slavery in the United States, and it helped to shift the focus of the war from simply preserving the Union to also fighting for the freedom of enslaved people. Still, it would take further actions to enforce anti-slavery laws in order to ensure freedom for all. 

Abolishing Needed an Amendment

The support needed to take the essence of the Emancipation Proclamation and turn it into law came on December 14, 1863. House Republican James Ashley of Ohio introduced an amendment to ban slavery. In the coming months, and with the staunch support of President Lincoln, more members of Congress from both parties submitted resolutions and called for Congress to bring an end to slavery.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was eventually passed by Congress in January 1865. The amendment stipulates, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

The amendment was ratified into law on December 6, 1865, officially making slavery illegal in the United States. Again, it would take further efforts to ensure all enslaved people were given their lawful right to freedom.

Confederate Control Officially Ends

Although the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment stated the country's official stance on slavery and despite the 13th Amendment passing, freeing nearly 4 million, there were still enslaved people years after President Lincoln's famous speech.

The newly formed anti-slavery policies of the United States proved difficult to enforce, particularly in remote areas still controlled by Confederate forces. Because of its isolated location and lack of Union forces, the westernmost Confederate state of Texas was one of those places. It would require the intervention of the U.S. Army to abolish slavery in its final stronghold.

In June 1865, 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, to deliver an executive decree: The 250,000 people still enslaved in Texas must be set free. It is on this day the final enslaved people were freed in the United States. June 19, 1865. Juneteenth.

A Special Time to Celebrate

Within one year of the announcement in Galveston, African Americans began celebrating the day. Juneteenth is considered the longest-running African American holiday. The first celebrations consisted of prayer meetings, singing spirituals, and wearing new clothes to represent newfound freedom. 

Texas made Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980, and has since been declared a federal holiday.

Today, Juneteenth is recognized in all 50 states and widely celebrated. Parades, festivals, family gatherings, and traditional foods are hallmarks of a Juneteenth celebration. It's also common to hear a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation or enjoy a lecture or inspiring speech from an African American orator. 

Other interesting facts about Juneteenth celebrations:

  • Red foods (red beans, red velvet cake, red soda) are prominently served
  • Some celebrations in Florida take place on May 20 to commemorate the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation at the Knott House in Tallahassee
  • Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day, Independence Day, and Freedom Day are all other names associated with Juneteenth
  • The holiday is celebrated outside of the U.S. by nations and organizations that use the day to honor African culture and the achievements of African Americans

A Day of Pride and Honor

Overcoming the evils of slavery and enduring retaliation, delay, confusion, and violence for years after their government declared them free, African Americans persevered. Juneteenth is the day to lift them up and tell their story.

Celebrate with us the rich history and contributions of African Americans on Juneteenth. It is a day to honor the strength and resilience of those who fought for freedom and equality and to remember the struggles of those who came before us. 

This day is not only a celebration of the end of slavery but also a reminder of the ongoing fight for justice and equality for all. 

Our business is one that honors diversity and embraces inclusivity in everything we do. We believe it matters for the history and culture of all those who’ve contributed to the fabric of our nation be acknowledged, respected, and celebrated. We value the significance of Juneteenth and hold dear its importance in our story.

National Archives
National Park Service
National Museum of African American History and Culture
UC Denver

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