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Slavery Didn't End On Juneteenth. Here's What You Should Know About This Important Day

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Emancipation Day celebration in Richmond, Va., 1905
Library of Congress

Emancipation Day celebration in Richmond, Va., 1905

It goes by many names. Whether you call it Emancipation Day, Freedom Day or the country's second Independence Day, Juneteenth is one of the most important anniversaries in our nation's history.

On June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, who had fought for the Union, led a force of soldiers to Galveston, Texas, to deliver a very important message: the war was finally over, the Union had won, and it now had the manpower to enforce the end of slavery. The announcement came two months after the effective conclusion of the Civil War, and even longer since Abraham Lincoln had first signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but many enslaved black people in Texas still weren't free, even after that day.

That was 156 years ago. Here are the basics of Juneteenth that everyone should know.

What Juneteenth represents

First things first: Juneteenth gets its name from combining "June" and "nineteenth," the day that Gen. Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, bearing a message of freedom for the slaves there. Upon his arrival, he read out General Order Number 3, informing the residents that slavery would no longer be tolerated; all slaves were now free and would henceforth be treated as hired workers if they chose to remain on the plantations, according to the Juneteenth website.

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"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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer," the order reads, in part.

But while former slaves had the option of staying on their plantations as workers, it's perhaps unsurprising that many did not and instead left in search of new beginnings or to find family members who had been sold away.

"It immediately changed the game for 250,000 people," Shane Bolles Walsh, a lecturer with the University of Maryland's African American Studies Department, told NPR.

Enslaved black people, now free, had ample cause to celebrate. As Felix Haywood, a former slave, recalled: "Everybody went wild. We all felt like heroes ... just like that, we were free."

Slavery did not end on Juneteenth

When Gen. Granger arrived in Galveston, there still existed around 250,000 slaves and they were not all freed immediately, or even soon. It was not uncommon for slave owners, unwilling to give up free labor, to refuse to release their slaves until forced to, in person, by a representative of the government, historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in his explainer. Some would wait until one final harvest was complete, and some would just outright refuse to submit. It was a perilous time for black people, and some former slaves who were freed or attempted to get free were attacked and killed.

For Confederate states like Texas, even before Juneteenth, there existed a "desire to hold on to that system as long as they could," Walsh explained to NPR.

Before the reading of General Order Number 3, many slave owners in Confederate states simply chose not to tell their slaves about the Emancipation Proclamation and did not honor it. They got away with it because, before winning the war, Union soldiers were largely unable to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation in Southern states. Still, even though slavery in America would not truly come to an end until the ratification of the 13th Amendment, the Emancipation Proclamation still played a pivotal role in that process, historian Lonnie Bunch told NPR in 2013.

"What the Emancipation Proclamation does that's so important is it begins a creeping process of emancipation where the federal government is now finally taking firm stands to say slavery is wrong and it must end," Bunch said.

People have celebrated Juneteenth any way they can

After they were freed, some former slaves and their descendants would travel to Galveston annually in honor of Juneteenth. That tradition soon spread to other states, but it wasn't uncommon for white people to bar black people from celebrating in public spaces, forcing black people to get creative. In one such case, community leaders in Houston – all of whom were former slaves – saved $1,000 to purchase land in 1867 that would be devoted specifically to Juneteenth celebrations, according to the Houston Parks and Recreation Department. That land became Emancipation Park, a name that it still bears.

"'If you want to commemorate something, you literally have to buy land to commemorate it on' is, I think, just a really potent example of the long-lasting reality of white supremacy," Walsh said.

Nevertheless, black Americans found a way to continue to celebrate and lift each other up. Early on, Juneteenth celebrations often involved helping newly freed black folks learn about their voting rights, according to the Texas State Historical Association. Rodeos and horseback riding were also common. Now, Juneteenth celebrations commonly involve cookouts, parades, church services, musical performances and other public events, Walsh explained.

It's a day to "commemorate the hardships endured by ancestors," Walsh said. He added, "It really exemplifies the survival instinct, the ways that we as a community really make something out of nothing. ... It's about empowerment and hopefulness."

And there's reason to be hopeful. After literal decades of activists campaigning for change, Congress has approved Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

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