Juneteenth is the best-known and one of the oldest American holidays that celebrates the end of slavery in the United States; it commemorates the date June 19, 1865, when the last African American slaves held in Confederate states were freed, and has been observed since June 19, 1866.
Although President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as an executive order on January 1, 1863, its immediate impact was relatively small due to the fact that Confederate slaveowners weren’t compelled to observe Union authority. Thus, millions of African Americans continued to live as slaves until Union armies gradually made their way across the South to overtake Confederate resistance and enforce Lincoln’s order. On June 19, 1865, approximately two-and-a-half years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Union general Gordon Granger read the contents of “General Order No. 3” from a balcony in Galveston, Texas, and released all slaves held in that state. Six months later, the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865 would ultimately make slavery illegal throughout the entire United States.
Juneteenth was first celebrated in Texas with political rallies that featured voting rights and voter education. Wealthier African Americans purchased land to establish dependable venues for annual Juneteenth celebrations that included live entertainment in the form of music, pageants, parades, and outdoor games. There were also meaningful rituals associated with the event. During earlier celebrations, for example, former slaves discarded their old clothing and replaced it with newer styles, as remembrance that laws governing slaves often prohibited African Americans from wearing finer clothing that challenged the status of their masters. Dressing well on the holiday is a custom that is still practiced with some solemnity today. Other ritual traditions have involved dramatic readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, renditions of the African American national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (written by James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson), and interpretation of the works of African American men and women of letters. Food traditions include barbecue and strawberry soda, both prominent staples at Juneteenth picnics.
As African American Texans migrated to other states, Juneteenth celebrations spread to new locations. The celebration of the emancipation of African American slaves has also been conducted on other days, such as the anniversaries of President Lincoln’s birthday (February 12), or the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1), as seen in this 1906 program from Big Bethel A.M.E. Church, the oldest congregation in Atlanta’s historic Sweet Auburn neighborhood.
Emancipation celebrations are also held in former Confederate states on the anniversaries of the date of compliance with the Emancipation Proclamation. In Georgia, residents of Upson County have celebrated Emancipation Day every year since 1866 on May 29th. Georgia House resolution (HR) 859 was passed on January 24, 1996; it designated May 29th “Emancipation Day” in Upson County, as seen on page 227 of the document. An African American woman named Flexan Pierce recalls celebrating Emancipation Day each year on August 12 with a picnic during an oral history interview conducted on October 30, 1972 (this can be heard 3 minutes and 43 seconds into the recording).
From the early- to mid-twentieth century, the holiday’s popularity waned for numerous reasons. Standardized textbooks, for one, listed the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation as the date that slavery ended, but failed to recognize resistance to that law in Southern states; African Americans had moved away from rural farms and into cities where employers were less likely to permit a June 19th holiday in the middle of the week, particularly when a national independence holiday was celebrated on July 4th; and during the earlier days of the Civil Rights movement, African Americans were encouraged to strive for integration rather than celebrate culturally separate aspects of their national heritage.
But renewed interest in Juneteenth gained strength towards the latter part of the 1960s, when Rev. Ralph Abernathy aligned the celebration with the national civil rights and anti-poverty goals of the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. Solidarity Day, a key event in the campaign, took place on Juneteenth.
Organized by Abernathy, Coretta Scott King, leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and members of other civil rights and relief organizations to continue Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s legacy after his assassination on April 4, 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign’s goals were to secure economic justice for poor Americans, and to pass federal legislation that would improve the economic and social conditions of the impoverished. SCLC leaders organized several regional caravans throughout the country to bring participants to Washington, D.C., one of which can be seen here passing through Atlanta.
On June 19, 1968, approximately fifty thousand people gathered on Solidarity Day at the Washington Mall to march in support of increasing federal commitment to President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and to listen to Coretta Scott King deliver an address that was originally to have been given by her husband. By linking Solidarity Day to Juneteenth, Abernathy also joined the remembrance of slavery and emancipation with the struggles of their time: civil rights, economic injustice, and the loss of Martin Luther King, Jr. Inspired by the symbolism of these events, many civil rights workers who traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in the Poor People’s Campaign returned home and initiated regional Juneteenth celebrations in their own communities.
Over the past four decades, Juneteenth activities have increased in sponsorship, and a unified interest in the commemoration of Juneteenth has continued to grow as African Americans have been determined to ensure that the memories of the last slaves freed in this country are not forgotten. In 2011, Georgia became the thirty-seventh state to recognize Juneteenth at its state capitol with the passage of S.R. 164, co-sponsored by state senators Lester Jackson from Savannah (District 2), Donzella James from College Park (District 35), and Valencia Seay from Riverdale (District 34); the resolution was read and adopted on February 16, 2011. This can be seen in the Georgia Government Publications collection as its title was formally introduced in the legislative chamber (on page 3 of the February 6, 2011 issue of Senate First Readers) and as it was read and adopted on page 187 of the 2011 issue of the Journal of the Senate of the State of Georgia, Regular Session 2011.
We hope you enjoy this historic celebration of freedom and independence. Happy Juneteenth!