Juneteenth – Encyclopedia Virginia

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Origins of Juneteenth

General Gordon Granger

Juneteenth, which combines the words June and nineteenth, is a holiday celebrated by many African Americans to commemorate the end of legal slavery in the United States. It has its origins in June 19, 1865, the day the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas, learned they were free when Union general Gordon Granger arrived with 2,000 troops and issued General Order No. 3, proclaiming the end of slavery in Texas. The order declaring that “all slaves are free” was read by the troops at several locations throughout the city, including Union headquarters at the Osterman Building and the Negro Methodist Episcopal Church South, and published in newspapers throughout the state.

New Orleans Slave Market

  • Slave Auction Slave Auction
“Manifest of Slaves”

It had been ten weeks since Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, ending the American Civil War (1861-1865), but news of the Confederate defeat traveled slowly and unevenly. Enslaved individuals in Texas and the other states that seceded from the Union officially had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. But there was no enforcement of the proclamation in remote states like Texas with few Union troops. Granger’s announcement of the end of slavery was met with jubilation by the newly freed Black population of Galveston, which numbered approximately 1,500 at the time in what was the state’s largest city, a prosperous port that was home to the largest slave market west of New Orleans.

Celebrating the Juneteenth Holiday in Texas

  • Group Celebrating Juneteenth
Musicians at Juneteenth Celebration

In 1866, African Americans in Galveston began holding an annual emancipation celebration to commemorate June 19th in which they gathered to pray, hear from orators, and share their history over various culinary offerings. By the 1870s, Juneteenth celebrations were being held in surrounding states and often included a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, parades, games, rodeos, and barbeques, which often featured red soda water in homage to the red drink that had marked special occasions in West Africa.

At the turn of the century, however, textbooks used in southern states offered a narrow rendering of history, including the history of slavery. The focus of freedom celebrations was the Fourth of July or January 1, 1863, the date the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. As a result, General Order No. 3 was not taught in schools, and Juneteenth did not become part of the national narrative.

Emancipation Day in Richmond
Emancipation Day in Richmond, Virginia

In Virginia, the date of celebration marking the end of slavery, sometimes called Emancipation Day or Freedom Day, differed in various African American communities. Virginia was home to at least a half-million enslaved people on the eve of the Civil War. When slavery ended, many formerly enslaved people moved about the country in search of family, carrying their traditions with them, and some Black Virginians adopted the Juneteenth holiday. Meanwhile, the African American community in Richmond celebrated emancipation on April 3, the date that Union troops liberated Richmond, with a large parade through the city. This tradition lasted until the early twentieth century. African Americans in Alexandria celebrated emancipation on April 7, the date in 1864 when the new state Constitution abolished slavery in Alexandria and other areas under Union control. In Norfolk, African Americans celebrated January 1 with an Emancipation Day parade, a tradition that began in 1863 and continued until at least 1944. African American communities in Loudoun County celebrated the end of slavery on September 22, the day President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The Loudoun County Emancipation Association held an annual celebration until 1967 on “emancipation grounds” it purchased in 1910 in Purcellville.

Juneteenth Art
Juneteenth Celebration 2020

As some of these historic commemorations faded in the second half of the twentieth century, Juneteenth, one of the oldest celebrations of the end of slavery, gained popularity with the increased interest in African American history and culture. Juneteenth celebrations became popular throughout the country as a centralized date to celebrate Black emancipation. In 1980, Texas became the first state to commemorate Juneteenth as an official holiday. Today every state except South Dakota recognizes Juneteenth. On October 13, 2020, Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation to codify Juneteenth as an official state holiday in Virginia.

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