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11 Things about Juneteenth

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By Annika Tomlin

On June 19, 1865, Gen. Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, and announced enslaved people were free. Since then, June 19 has been celebrated as Juneteenth across the nation. Here are 11 things everyone should know about the historic event and celebration.

11. SLAVES DIDN’T KNOW THEY WERE ALREADY EMANCIPATED

The June 19 announcement came more than two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. That being said, from the Union’s perspective, the 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were already free — but none of them were aware of it. No one was rushing to inform them.

10. THEORIES ABOUT THE DELAY

News traveled slowly back in those days. However, that doesn’t explain the 30-month gap between Lincoln’s proclamation and the enslaved people’s freedom. Some speculated that Texans didn’t want to make the announcement. Other theories: the messenger was murdered to prevent the information from being shared; the federal government purposely delayed the announcement to get one more cotton harvest from the enslaved workers. The most likely reason was Lincoln’s proclamation wasn’t enforceable in the rebel states prior to the end of the war.

9. TOLD TO STAY WITH FORMER OWNERS

General Order No. 3, as read by Granger, said, “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. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

8. ‘THE SCATTER’

Most freed people didn’t want to stay with their “masters” — even if pay was involved. In fact, some left before Granger finished making the announcement. What followed became known as “the scatter” when droves of former enslaved people left the state to find family members or more welcoming accommodations in northern regions.

7. NOT EVERYONE WAS FREED INSTANTLY

According to historian James Smallwood, many enslavers suppressed the information until after the harvest, and some beyond that. In July 1867, there were two separate reports of enslaved people being freed, and one story of a Texas horse thief named Alex Simpson whose enslaved people were only freed after his hanging in 1868.

6. LIMITED CELEBRATION OPTIONS

When freed people tried to celebrate the first anniversary of the announcement, they were faced with a problem: segregation laws were expanding rapidly, and they couldn’t use public places or parks. In the 1870s, former enslaved people pooled $800 and purchased 10 acres of land, which they deemed Emancipation Park. It was the only public park and swimming pool in the Houston area that was open to African Americans until the 1950s.

5. JUNETEENTH CELEBRATIONS WANED FOR SEVERAL DECADES

Celebration waned not because people no longer wanted to celebrate freedom, but rather the constant force of oppression made it difficult to celebrate. Juneteenth celebrations diminished during the era of Jim Crow laws until the civil rights movement of the 1960s. That’s when the Poor People’s March planned by Martin Luther King Jr. was scheduled to coincide with the date. The march brought Juneteenth back to the forefront, and when march participants took the celebrations back to their home states, the holiday was reborn.

4. TEXAS STATE HOLIDAY

In 1980, Texas was the first state to deem the holiday-worthy of statewide recognition. To date, all states besides North Dakota, South Dakota and Hawaii and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as a state or ceremonial holiday.

3. A FEDERAL HOLIDAY*

As a senator, Barack Obama co-sponsored legislation to make Juneteenth a national holiday, but it didn’t pass. President Joe Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday on June 17, 2021.

2. JUNETEENTH FLAG IS FULL OF SYMBOLISM

The Juneteenth flag, created in 1997 is the brainchild of activist Ben Haith, collaborators and designer Lisa Jeanne Graf. Graf packed meaning into it. The colors red, white and blue echo the American flag and symbolize that the enslaved people and their descendants were Americans. The star in the middle pays homage to Texas, while the bursting “new star” on the “horizon” of the red and blue fields represents a new freedom and a new people.

1. JUNETEENTH TRADITIONS VARY ACROSS THE UNITED STATES

When Juneteenth spread across the nation, communities put their own spin on celebrations. In southern states, the holiday is celebrated with oral histories and readings, “red soda water” or strawberry soda, and barbecues. Other states serve Marcus Garvey salad with red, green and black beans in honor of the Black nationalist. Rodeos are a Southwest tradition, while contests, concerts and parades are common themes across the country. CT

*This entry has been updated from the original stating it was “Not a Federal Holiday” following President Joe Biden making Juneteenth a federal holiday on June 17, 2021.

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