Celebrating Juneteenth

The federal holiday celebrates the freedom of enslaved people at the end of the Civil War. Here’s how it got its start.

On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with an announcement: Enslaved people there were free.

People from Africa had been enslaved in the United States since 1619. By the 1770s, people strongly disagreed over the issue of slavery. Many people in the northern Union states wanted to abolish, or end, slavery. In the southern Confederate states, white people relied on enslaved people to farm their crops and did not want it to end.

By 1861, 11 southern states had decided to secede, or withdraw, from the nation over disagreements over slavery and each state’s right to allow it. This is what started the Civil War in 1861.

When he first announced the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln officially ended the enslavement of people halfway through the Civil War. The declaration called for people to be freed on January 1, 1863. However, the announcement didn’t immediately lead to freedom because the Union army still needed to win the war. 

The beginning of the end of slavery

On April 9, 1865, the Confederate army surrendered; the Union army was victorious, and the Civil War was over. Because of Lincoln’s earlier declaration ending slavery, that meant enslaved people could claim their freedom. But many slave owners didn’t want to see this change come. 

For instance, leaders in Texas still followed the state’s Confederate constitution, which stated that no laws could be passed freeing enslaved people, even though the Confederacy had lost the war. That’s one reason why Granger and his Union army came to Texas more than two months after the end of the war—and over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation—to make sure slave owners were following the new law and letting enslaved people go free.

To spread the word about freedom, Granger and more than 2,000 Union soldiers marched to public buildings and even a church to read the General Order, No. 3., part of which declared:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free."

Later that year, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed into law to officially abolish the practice of slavery after nearly 250 years of it in the United States. Even after passage, the law often had to be enforced in many former slave states by federal agents.

Beyond Texas, enslaved people were granted freedom at different times, but it’s still June 19 that many people celebrate as a “second Independence Day.”

From proclamation to celebration

Soon after Granger’s announcement, newly freed Black people around Texas organized and purchased park land for annual celebrations for what was now called “Juneteenth,” a mashup of the month and day of Granger’s news. Owning land was something that enslaved African Americans were never allowed to do, so having a place set aside to celebrate their freedom was a powerful symbol of their new status. 

The holiday quickly spread to other Black communities throughout the country. People gathered for church services, concerts, parades, and picnics with traditional tea cakes and bright red hibiscus iced tea. The day has been celebrated by generations of families, and some historians think the modern Juneteenth tradition of having red-colored foods, like strawberry soda, watermelon, and red velvet cake, was inspired by those early celebrations.

Until recently, a few states—including Texas, New York, and Virginia—observed Juneteenth as an official state holiday, and state employees had the day off. But now it's a national holiday for everyone. In 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, making June 19 a federal holiday. It's the first new one since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was declared in 1983.

People across the country celebrate Juneteenth by gathering with family and friends for parties, parades, cookouts, rodeos, and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation.

(Learn more about Juneteenth at National Geographic.)