Ten Key Questions:
Why was Juneteenth celebrated?
Where did most slaves work before the Civil War?
Between 1865 and 1954, how were the lives of black people in the South different from those in the North?
Why was Dr King so important in the fight for civil rights?
How was Martin Luther King killed in 1968?
What has changed for black people since King died?
Why has Juneteenth grown in popularity, and how has the day been celebrated in recent decades?
How and when did Juneteenth become a national holiday?
What was the ‘Underground Railway’?
Why are Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass still commemorated?
Today, about forty million of the three hundred million of the USA are black. They used to live mainly in the southern states, including Texas, after 1845, working in the cotton and tobacco fields.
The word ‘Juneteenth’ comes from the colloquial pronunciation of ‘June 19th,’ the date when Major General Gordon Granger and his soldiers of the Union Army arrived in Galveston, Texas, in 1865, where he announced that all slaves in every state were free. ‘Juneteenth’ is, therefore, the oldest celebration in the nation to commemorate that event, marking the ending of slavery in the United States. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected the sixteenth president of the United States. He belonged to the Republican Party, which wanted slavery to be abolished throughout all states since the southern ‘Confederate’ states had continued to allow the keeping of slaves to work in the cotton fields, whereas slavery had been abolished in the northern ‘Union’ states since 1808. People in the new states of the west, including Texas, also wanted to keep their slaves, but the northern abolitionists were against this extension of the system. On 24th December 1860, South Carolina declared its independence from the Union, and the other southern states soon followed. The war began in April 1861, and two years later, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the ‘Emancipation Proclamation’, officially freeing the slaves throughout the USA. However, news of the Proclamation did not reach many parts of the country immediately. Instead, the news spread slowly from state to state, in part because the Civil War had not yet ended. However, when in 1865, the Civil War did finally end, and the Union Army began spreading the news across the southern states, both of the end of the war and of Emancipation. On 19th June, one of General Granger’s first acts was to read in public General Order Number Three, which began:
The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation of the President of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them and becomes that between employer and free labourer.
This announcement effectively freed the remaining quarter of a million slaves in the United States. Following this, many of the former slaves left Texas for other states to reunite with family members and start new lives. They carried with them the joyful news of Juneteenth. However, the assassination of Lincoln, five days after the war’s end, left the USA without a strong president to bring the North and South together, and the states continued to argue about the rights of black people. Many southerners, particularly the plantation owners, were resentful at losing the war and that their slaves were now free. There was much continuing prejudice and violence against the freed slaves. Some of the white bigots joined the Ku Klux Klan, founded in 1867 by a group of Confederate veterans in Georgia to fight against black rights. This secret organisation soon grew throughout the southern states into groups of white ‘vigilantes’ who disguised themselves in white robes and covered their faces before going out to take black people out of their homes to beat and murder them, often publicly in what was known as a ‘lynching’. They also burned the homes, schools and churches of black people. Despite the ‘General Order’ of Juneteenth, equal rights were withheld in most southern states, and black men could not vote in public elections until 1870, and even then, they were often too frightened to use their vote. In the 1890s, more than a thousand blacks were killed by whites in the South. Most blacks were too frightened to tell the police because many policemen secretly belonged to the Klan.
Nevertheless, in subsequent decades former slaves and their descendants continued to commemorate Juneteenth, and many even made pilgrimages back to Galveston to celebrate it there. Most of the initial celebrations took place in rural areas and included activities such as fishing, barbecues and family reunions. Church grounds were often used for these activities, and one of the first documented land purchases specifically for holding Juneteenth celebrations was organised by Reverend Jack Yates. He raised a thousand dollars through fund-raising efforts, purchasing what became known as Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas. As African Americans improved their economic conditions to become landowners themselves, more tracts of land were specifically purchased for Juneteenth and other community events. Juneteenth celebrations began declining in the 1920s and ’30s, in part because of the severe economic conditions of the Great Depression, which led to further outbreaks of violence against southern blacks. The book To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee tells the frightening story of a black man, Tom Robinson, in 1930s Alabama. Although Tom has done nothing wrong in the story, people believe that he is a criminal simply because he is black. Racial prejudice and discrimination in the South continued into the 1950s and ’60s, with blacks having to sit separately on buses and eat in separate sections in restaurants. Until 1954, black children were made to go to separate schools under this policy of ‘segregation’.
However, events during the 1950s and ’60s, including the Civil Rights Movement, led to a resurgence of Juneteenth celebrations. The black Baptist minister, Rev. Marin Luther King Jnr. began his direct action campaigns for the civil rights of black people in Alabama. The nonviolent campaigns included the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, beginning when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. Black people also started to go into ‘whites only’ restaurants. In August 1963, a meeting of more than a quarter of a million people at the Washington Monument heard Dr King make his famous I have a dream speech, in which he called for real equality between black and white people. Finally, in 1964, a law was passed which gave black people equal rights. But in 1968, King was assassinated after a prayer meeting in Memphis, and violence broke out in more than a hundred cities across America. As national attention focused on improving rights for African Americans, the interest in remembering and celebrating important African-American events increased. Later in 1968, Rev. Ralph Abernathy led the Poor People’s March to Washington (D. C.). This event called for people of all ‘races’, creeds, and economic levels to meet and show support for the poor. Many of those who attended returned home and revived Juneteenth celebrations to educate and empower their communities.
From the early twentieth century, black people began to migrate to the northern mid-western industrial cities, like Detroit and Chicago, to find work, so there are now more black people in the North than in the South. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a quarter of all blacks lived outside the South, mostly in the Northern cities. But even in these cities, they lived separately from the white working classes. Two of the largest Juneteenth celebrations today were founded after the Washington march, occurring annually in Minnesota’s two cities – Milwaukee and Minneapolis – cities that had not previously held Juneteenth celebrations. On 1st January 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas, making it the first and only officially recognised emancipation celebration. Since then, Juneteenth has gradually grown in popularity throughout the United States, where it is celebrated as an occasion for encouraging self-development and respect for all cultures and ethnicities. In 2021, President Biden made it a federal holiday, a day to be marked throughout the USA with parades, concerts, family reunions, barbecues, speeches and historical reenactments, like those shown in the photographs below.
Appendix – Commemorating Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman:
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was very popular in the mid-nineteenth century, convincing many Americans that slavery was wrong. It also told the exciting story of how a slave family escaped using the ‘Underground Railway.’ This was a series of ‘stages’ where slaves could find places to stay on their journeys to freedom as well as other forms of help. People in each house would show them the way to the next ‘safe’ house en route. Two former slaves commemorated on Juneteenth for their role in this were Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, who helped hundreds of other slaves escape. Frederick Douglass escaped in 1838 and began working for the freedom of other black people. He recognised that in order to be truly free, he needed to be able to read and write. He wrote an autobiography, travelled to Europe to speak about slavery, and then returned to New York to start several newspapers. During the Civil War, he encouraged black men to join the army to fight for the North, and after the war, he worked for the federal government. Harriet Tubman fled over a hundred and fifty miles to freedom in 1849 with the help of white abolitionists and free blacks. Although it was dangerous for a runaway slave to return to the South, she did so in order to help her family, saying, “I can only die once.” In the 1850s, she helped more than three hundred slaves to escape.
Gail Brenner, Marsha Ford, Patricia Sullivan (2007), Celebrate! Holidays in the USA. Washington DC: United States Department of State (Office of English Language Programs).
colloquial: adj. an informal way of speaking or pronouncing words.
Emancipation Proclamation: n. the government document that officially proclaimed or stated American slaves to be free. The word emancipation refers to setting someone or something free. A proclamation is a public or formal announcement.
Union: n. refers to the federal state constituting the United States of America.
heretofore: adv. up to this time.
descendants: n. people related to people living in the past.
pilgrimage: n. travel to a place that holds special meaning, often spiritual or religious.
tract: n. a measured section of land.
prejudice: n. a strong idea that you do not like something before you have experienced it, for a reason that may be wrong or unfair.
civil right: n. something you are allowed to do by law, including the right to vote, work, speak and write freely, on an equal basis with everyone else.
segregation: n. to separate one individual or group of people from another individual or group.
Great Depression: historical phrase. a drastic decline in the world economy from 1929 to 1934 that resulted in widespread unemployment and poverty.
resurgence: n. a rise in popularity after a period of relative unpopularity.
to register: v. to put your name on an official list.
to boycott: v. to refuse to buy or use something as a way of protesting.
riot: n. an event in which a large group of people fight and make a lot of noise and trouble.
creed: n. a set of beliefs
to revive: v. to make something come to life/ more popular again.
barbecue: n. a meal in which the food is cooked over charcoal or an open fire outside.
reenactment: n. a reproduction of an event that took place in the past, based on evidence.