The History of Juneteenth


If you’ve heard about Juneteenth, the common telling is that while President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation pronounced freedom for all enslaved people in states that had seceded from the Union, Black Texans weren’t informed about the act until June 19, 1865 — two and a half years later. The delay is sometimes blamed on distance and limited communication or the idea that enslavers weren’t inclined to comply with the law. While these may have been contributing factors, these explanations can obscure why the Black residents of Galveston, Texas, celebrated the first Juneteenth — and masks how that commemoration still speaks to us today.

Many slaves knew about Lincoln’s executive order emancipating them. The news was widely covered in Texas newspapers (with an anti-abolitionist spin, of course), and Black people would have overheard the news. Moreover, according to Edward T. Cotham, Jr., author of Juneteenth, The Story Behind the Celebration, “There was an incredibly sophisticated communication network among slaves in Texas. News like that spread like wildfire. We know some slaves knew about the Emancipation Proclamation even before slaveowners. It didn’t mean anything because there was no army to enforce it.”

The reality is that Lincoln’s executive order was meaningless to the rebellious states until the Union army arrived to enforce it. Likewise, while the 13th Amendment formally abolished slavery in the United States, most Texans didn’t yet consider themselves a part of the U.S. 

Though the U.S. didn’t consider the secession legal, Texas didn’t regain full congressional representation and ratify the 13th Amendment until 1870. As such, in 1865, the Lone Star State did not recognize the authority of Lincoln or the U.S. Constitution.

According to Cotham, career U.S. Army officer General Gordon Granger tasked with delivering the news never read the order publicly, nor did any member of his staff. It would have been posted around town, particularly at places where Black people gathered, such as “the Negro Church on Broadway,” as Reedy Chapel-AME Church was then called. Most enslaved people in Texas learned of General Order No. 3 when the slave owner called them together and read them the news.

The order — which includes the powerful language “all slaves are free” and “absolute equality” — was written by Granger’s staff officer, Major Frederick Emery, who hailed from an abolitionist family in Free Kansas. “As a crusader against slavery in Kansas, Emery was well versed on the subject of emancipation,” writes Cotham in his Juneteenth book.

Becoming a Federal Holiday

Juneteenth was officially made a federal holiday on June 17, 2021, becoming one of five date-specific federal holidays along with New Year’s Day (January 1), Independence Day (July 4), Veterans Day (November 11), and Christmas Day (December 25). Juneteenth is the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was declared a holiday in 1986. The holiday is also called “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day,” or “Emancipation Day.”

Juneteenth is celebrated across the country among Black families and friends with street fairs, parades, and concerts. Many United Methodists around Missouri celebrate the Juneteenth holiday, including Saint Paul UMC in Fayette, which has celebrated the holiday for 22 years and counting.

Resource: Edward T. Cotham, Jr., Texas Civil War historian and author of Juneteenth, The Story Behind the Celebration.