The United States has 11 federally observed holidays. These include New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. States, meanwhile, are allowed to have their own holidays. Growing up in Massachusetts, I fondly remember Patriots’ Day celebrating the Battles of Lexington and Concord. It’s also the day of the Boston Marathon and when the Red Sox play at 11:00 A.M. Unless you live in Hawai’i, Montana, New Hampshire, or the Dakotas, today June 19 is one of those state recognized holidays. It’s called Juneteenth and while it’s largely unknown to most Americans, it celebrates the end of slavery in United States.
On June 18, 1865, Union forces under the command of Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to reestablish Federal control over the state. The next day, Granger, standing on the balcony of a mansion in Galveston, declared the end of slavery in the state. Reading from General Order No. 3, Granger announced:
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.
During the Civil War, slave owners across the South fled to Texas as a way to avoid the war and maintain their control over their human chattel for as long as possible. While Confederate forces in the East surrendered in early April 1865, Confederates out west did not lay down their arms until late May 1865. Granger had to take control of the state and enforce Federal policy. General Order No. 3 reiterated the Emancipation Proclamation that went into effect on January 1, 1863. All slaves in Confederate territory were freed.
The announcement prompted celebration amongst the African-American community in Galveston and laid the foundation for the Juneteenth holiday. Much like African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina following its occupation by Union forces, African-Americans in Galveston took to the streets in celebration. In the ensuing years, African-Americans in Texas and across the South began organizing and hosting celebrations on June 19. In 1872, a group of African-American community leaders in Houston purchased four acres of land and created a park, Emancipation Park, to host Juneteenth celebrations. Later, under Houston’s Jim Crow laws, Emancipation Park became the only public park available to the city’s African-American residents. With the Great Migration, African-Americans spread their Juneteenth celebrations to the industrial cities of the North and West. In the early 20th century, the popularity of the holiday waned as African-Americans drew little satisfaction in celebrating emancipation in the face of Jim Crow and white supremacy. The Civil Rights campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s sparked a renewed interest in Juneteenth as a way of celebrating African-American history and culture. Recently activism from the African-American community has led to 45 states and the District of Columbia recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday.
If we think of holidays as an expression of our national values, then making Juneteenth a federal holiday would be fitting. Celebrating the end of slavery is certainly something that we, as a nation, should acknowledge and celebrate. The holiday would recognize the efforts of all those who fought and died to cleanse America of one its greatest sins. It would also remind us that their work remains unfinished. The establishment of a federal holiday, however, seems unlikely. As Erin, David and I discussed in our slack chat for Memorial Day, our holidays lack any specific character. We celebrate Memorial Day and Veterans Day, but rarely bother to distinguish between the two other than one is in May and the other is in November. And as the recent debates over Confederate monuments have revealed, large numbers of Americans are uninterested in confronting or even acknowledging America’s sins. Recognizing the significance of June 19 for all Americans, however, would be a step in the right direction.