Celebrate Juneteenth! A History of the Holiday

Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, is widely celebrated on June 19 as a holiday that commemorates the emancipation of African-American slaves at the end of the Civil War. But though this occasion is recognized and celebrated around the country, the historical event and circumstances it marks were actually unique to Texas.

Though President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became official on January 1, 1863, slaves in the Confederate South were not actually freed until the Confederacy surrendered, a process which began with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865 and continued through the following month. Because Texas was not a battleground and was geographically isolated from the center of the war, many slave owners from nearby southern states, such as Louisiana and Mississippi, brought an estimated 150,000 slaves to Texas to escape the invading Union forces.

As a results, the estimated 250,000 slaves in the state by the war’s end did not receive official word of their emancipation until June 19, 1865. On that day, Union General Gordon Granger, who had arrived in Galveston the day before with 2000 federal troops to occupy Texas, read aloud “General Order No. 3” from the balcony of the Ashton Villa (which is still standing). It announced the total emancipation of slaves in Texas. Though many slaves were not actually freed by their owners until later (often after the harvest), the date began to be celebrated by African-Americans in Texas over the course of the next few years and gradually became an unofficial holiday for blacks around the country.

In 1980, Texas established Juneteenth as an official state holiday. It was the first state in the country to do so, and the occasion has since been commemorated in many other areas of the country. There is currently federal legislation under consideration that would make it a national holiday.

Back in Texas, Juneteenth celebrations seem to be gaining wider recognition and publicity, especially among the state’s African-American population, with parades and pageants. There is also an annual pilgrimage to Galveston to honor the site of Gen. Granger’s original proclamation.

Here in the Austin area, Juneteenth is celebrated annually in several locations with civic events in Round Rock, Pflugerville and especially in East Austin. Plans for Austin’s June 19, which coincides with Father’s Day, feature a morning 2K run/walk followed by the Juneteenth Emancipation Parade. Both events will start at the corner of Comal St. and MLK Blvd. That afternoon and evening will be a celebration at Rosewood Park (2300 Rosewood Ave.). For more information, visit juneteenthcentraltexas.com.

Related Articles
Blues on the Green: An Austin Summertime Tradition
Austin Beaches
10 Tips for Getting Your Home (and Your Outlook) Ready for Spring