Juneteenth marks the day, June 19, in 1865 when General Gordon Granger of the United States Army arrived in Galveston, Texas and informed enslaved people of African descent that they were free. Ironically, the date of this last declaration of freedom is the emancipation holiday most often celebrated today. For more on Juneteenth check out our list of resources at the bottom of this page!
Beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, African Americans gathered to celebrate. Susie King Taylor, who served as a laundress and nurse, with the First South Carolina Volunteers (later the 33rd United States Colored Troops) included a detailed description in her memoir of one of the first emancipation celebrations:
On the first of January, 1863, we held services for the purpose of listening to the reading of President Lincoln’s proclamation…and the presentation of two beautiful stands of colors…It was a glorious day for us all, and we enjoyed every minute of it, and as a fitting close and the crowning event of this occasion we had a grand barbecue. A number of oxen were roasted whole, and we had a fine feast. Although not served as tastily or correctly as it would have been at home, yet it was enjoyed with keen appetites and relish. The soldiers had a good time. They sang or shouted “Hurrah!” all through the camp, and seemed overflowing with fun and frolic until taps were sounded, when many, no doubt, dreamt of this memorable day.
In honor of Juneteenth, here are a few documents in the American Civil War Museum’s collection associated with emancipation and its celebration.
Once President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, word needed to be disseminated. General Orders No. 1, issued on January 2, 1863 was distributed to officers of the U.S. Army to help spread the news. The Proclamation that Susie King Taylor heard may have been read from a similar document.
A year after the emancipation celebration described by Taylor, a similar celebration took place in Florida to “mark the anniversary of the Proclamation of Emancipation.” This letter from the Freedmen of St. Augustine served as an invitation to Captain Durgan of the 7th New Hampshire Volunteers to attend a celebration on January 1, 1864. It was to feature “several addresses” on the plaza and a “dinner in the Hall at the Court House at 1 P.M.” Of specific note is the signature. Although the chairman of the committee, Monroe Robinson, issued the invitation, he was unable to write it. Being illiterate, he signed with his mark, an X. This is not surprising since it was illegal to teach a black person to read or write.
One final document in our collection, demonstrates the continued desire to celebrate freedom. This illustration from Frank Leslie’s, published on February 3, 1877, depicts African-American men gathering near Capitol Square in Charleston, South Carolina for a procession celebrating emancipation on January 8. Most of the men are dressed in military uniforms, but of particular note is the fireman near the center of the drawing. He is carrying a fireman’s trumpet similar to the one on display in the Museum’s “A People’s Contest” exhibit. In the years immediately following the Civil War, African Americans made use of their new found freedoms to establish volunteer fire departments, fraternal orders, benevolent societies, banks, schools, and business.
Regardless of how you chose to celebrate Juneteenth, take a moment to contemplate the long, continuing struggle of African Americans for freedom.
Juneteenth Resource List
Like early Memorial and Decoration Days, most African American celebrations of emancipation began at the end of the Civil War. Dozens of local variations—based on the different ways that people encountered freedom in different places—arose and continued well into the twentieth century. As annual celebrations of freedom and emancipation evolved over the years, Juneteenth emerged in the 20th century as the foremost national day marking the end of slavery.
Celebrate Juneteenth Virtually
BlkFreedom.org (June 19): Six museums join forces to celebrate Black freedom through a day of virtual programs.
Juneteenth: A Virtual Family Day Celebration (Levine Museum of the New South, June 19, 9am-5pm ET): This museum’s annual family program goes virtual with live streams of storytelling, music, and history.
Virtual Juneteenth Takeover (PGParks History, week of June 15): Historic sites in Prince George’s County, Maryland feature a lineup of exciting performances, panels, and programs streamed on Facebook.
Orange County African American Historical Society & Montpelier’s Juneteenth (June 19): Join a day of online talks, performances, reunions, and local artisans hosted by James Madison’s Montpelier.
Self Preservation (Virginia Humanities, June 19, 12-1pm ET): Virginia Foundation for the Humanities offers a free online conversation about historic preservation of African American heritage.
Juneteenth 2020: Celebrate Freedom Day (University of Virginia, Friday, June 19, 3:00–4:00 pm ET)
This virtual presentation and Q&A session on “Juneteenth and Its Historical Significance in George Floyd’s America” will be led by Prof. Ervin L. Jordan, Jr. Registration is required.
Juneteenth, A Freedom Celebration (Elegba Folklore Society, June 20, 5pm ET): “The theme, Independence Day Our Way, invites attendees to have a good time at a holiday backyard party, to engage in culture and history, to circle up in community, feel empowered, feel joyful and consider what matters” through a schedule of performances and demonstrations. Lunch & Learn: Celebrating Juneteenth (Charlotte Museum of History and Historic Stagville, June 18, 12pm-12:45pm ET): Khadjia McNair, assistant site manager at Historic Stagville, joins the Charlotte Museum of History for a lunchtime discussion of the enduring legacy of Juneteenth.
Learn More About the History
Juneteenth and the Evolution of Commemoration: Explore how African American communities — and the country — began to celebrate the end of slavery, and how those annual observances evolved. From the ACWM blog, 2017.
HomefrontEd: All Different Now: Read along with ACWM education staff in an online storytime of Angela Johnson’s illustrated book about hearing the proclamation of freedom on June 19, 1865.
Today, Explained: Happy Juneteenth!: UCLA’s Brenda Stevenson explains the history and relevance of the Juneteenth holiday in this 2018 podcast episode from Vox.
What is Juneteenth? Henry Louis Gates, Jr. details the events of June 19, 1865, other early observances of freedom celebrations, and evolutions of those celebrations in a lengthy blog post on PBS. Also, check this summary, “Juneteenth: A Celebration of Freedom” from the Library of Virginia’s Uncommonwealth project.
This is Why Juneteenth is Important for America: This video from The Root chronicles the history of Juneteenth and argues that the holiday isn’t just about commemorating the end of slavery, but the continued determination and resilience of African Americans in the face of oppression.
Juneteenth: Freedom at Last: The Minnesota Historical Society produced this video that covers the history and evolution of the holiday, featuring the personal story of an artist/educator’s family connection to the day.