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A photo archived in the Library of Congress is said to show a 1905 celebration of emancipation in Richmond, Va. A photo archived in the Library of Congress is said to show a 1905 celebration of emancipation in Richmond, Va.

A photo archived in the Library of Congress is said to show a 1905 celebration of emancipation in Richmond, Va.

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg June 18, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • June 19 marks the day in 1865 that Union troops landed in Galveston, Texas, and announced the end of slavery.

  • Some states have designated other days to mark emancipation.

  • Juneteenth gained prominence through the Civil Rights movement and the call for economic and social justice.

Juneteenth, a day that speaks to the end of slavery in America, is getting recognition like it’s never seen before.

Companies from Lyft, to US Bank, to Target, to Google have made June 19 a paid holiday, as has the National Football League. New York and Virginia just moved to make it a state holiday.

Public celebrations have marked the day for decades, but if 15 years of Google search history is any measure, reactions to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police  — and President Donald Trump’s cancelled plan to hold a rally on that day — have sent awareness of Juneteenth skyrocketing. 

Interest grew in 2018 and 2019, but the number of people searching the term in 2020 dwarfs all previous years.

But Trump’s exaggeration in a Wall Street Journal interview that "nobody had ever heard of it" ignores history. There is no question the date has held significance for Americans for 155 years. 

Juneteenth has been celebrated as a victorious turning point in the emancipation of African Americans, but it has also come to represent something more illustrative about the complex experience of being black in the United States. 

Especially since the Civil Rights movement, the message of Juneteenth has shifted from being a day to celebrate freedom to one that calls people to reflect on the nation’s long history of racial inequality.

The origins in Galveston, Texas, 1865

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, but it wasn’t until two and half years later that it became a reality in Texas, the last bastion of the Confederacy. On June 19, 1865, Union Gen. Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas. Granger’s men marched through the city reading General Order No. 3 at municipal buildings and churches, declaring that all slaves were now free.

"The arrival of Gen. Gordon Granger demonstrated that the war was over and the Confederacy was over," said Galveston Historical Foundation head Dwayne Jones. "It was a military act and presence."

The show of force was needed. By some estimates, there were still 250,000 people enslaved in Texas at that point.

Laura Smalley was 10 years old, enslaved on a Belville, Texas plantation, about 120 miles from Galveston on June 19, 1865. In a recorded interview 76 years later, she recalled how the Confederacy’s defeat had not ended slavery for her and her mother. Even after the plantation owner returned from war, Smalley said, he mentioned not a word of freedom while those he enslaved continued unaware.

"Old master didn’t tell everyone we was free," Smalley said. "He didn’t tell. I think now, he waited six months. ... Six months. And turned us loose on the 19th of June. That’s why you know we celebrate that day, colored folks."

Leaders in Galveston’s African American community launched a tradition of public celebrations of June 19, although Jones says newspaper stories at the time didn’t refer to it as Juneteenth. That emerged decades later.

The day enjoyed popularity mainly in Texas and Oklahoma. Other places marked emancipation on different days. African Americans in Tennessee focused on Aug. 8 in line with stories that President Andrew Johnson freed his slaves in Greenville, Tenn., on that day in 1863. Washington, D.C., observed April 16, the day in 1862 when Congress abolished slavery in the the District of Columbia. For the people of Thomaston, Ga., it was May 29, for reasons similar to those in Galveston.

As America moved into the new century, some African American leaders argued that celebrating freedom was not enough.

African Americans, a 1913 editorial in the AME Church Review said, "had been wandering for these past forty years in the wilderness of political serfdom and drinking the bitter water ... of Jim Crowism. Within the next fifty years there must come to the Negro a new emancipation ... from social degradation, industrial and commercial exclusion, political inequality and all discrimination based on race and color."

The Jim Crow practices in the South fell heavily on the public display of African American solidarity. Accessing public spaces for celebration was difficult.

To pick just one example, in 1930, under pressure from whites, the sheriff in Warrenton, Ga., told African American organizers to "call it off," said historian Mitch Kachun, author of "First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory."

Juneteenth spreads

Kachun traced the growing awareness of June 19 to the migration of black people out of the South. By 1920, over 17,000 African American Texans moved away to states from Massachusetts to California. During World War II, thousands more relocated further west to find work in defense industries.

"As black Texans set down new roots in other regions, they carried along both their struggles for economic and social justice and their Juneteenth traditions," Kachun wrote.

The social justice overtones of Juneteenth became more prominent through the 1950s and 1960s. If any event fused Juneteenth with the Civil Rights movement, it was the 1968 Poor People’s March on Washington.

In Oklahoma folklore, a black Union soldier traveled by mule to share word of emancipation outward from Texas. The Poor People’s March started hundreds of miles from Washington a few weeks after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Marchers borrowed the widely recognized Juneteenth image of a mule-drawn wagon to deliver their message throughout the South," wrote Colgate University historian Graham Hodges. "Led by a mule, Ralph Abernathy, one of Dr. King's closest assistants conducted the march, stopping at the Lorraine Hotel, where King was gunned down."

The march ended with a ceremony attended by about 50,000 at the Lincoln Memorial on June 19.

Juneteenth.com, one of several efforts to promote recognition of the day, tracked large events in Milwaukee and Minneapolis back to the 1968 march.

The momentum behind Juneteenth has been growing. In 1980, the Texas legislature made it a state holiday. Today, 47 states recognize the day, although few give state workers the day off. Of those that voted to mark the day, all but four — Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and Minnesota — did so after 2000. There is a long-running effort to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Why June 19 over other possible days?

Juneteenth as a widespread celebration was far from inevitable. The people in Texas might have been among the last to be freed, but that turning point was just as powerful in other states, and came at different times. 

Some states recognized other dates. America already officially marks emancipation. Years of effort by African American businessman Richard Wright led Congress to designate a National Freedom Day in 1948. It was Feb. 1, the day in 1865 that Lincoln signed the resolution that produced 13th Amendment banning slavery.

But observance of National Freedom Day foundered. Groundhog Day, which is observed a day later on Feb. 2, tends to get more ink. 

Many commentators trace the rising prominence of Juneteenth to how late the news of freedom arrived in Galveston. 

"It is the observance of a victory delayed, of foot-dragging and desperate resistance by white supremacy against the tide of human rights, and of a legal freedom trampled by the might of state violence," wrote Vann Newkirk in The Atlantic in 2017.

Newkirk and others see Juneteenth as marking less the fact of liberation and more the unrealized promise of what was supposed to follow. As outrage over the death of George Floyd has swept the nation, the message of Juneteenth resonates.

 
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Our Sources

Library of Congress, Interview with Laura Smalley, Hempstead, Texas, 1941

Oxford University Press blog, Thoughts on Juneteenth, June 22, 2007

New Literary History, "As White as Anybody": Race and the Politics of Counting as Black, Autumn 2000

Conference on Lincoln and the Civil War in Contemporary America, Celebrating Freedom: Juneteenth and the Emancipation Festival Tradition, Feb. 6, 2009

Galveston History Foundation, JUNETEENTH AND GENERAL ORDER NO. 3, June 10, 2020

National Museum of African American History and Culture, The Historical Legacy of Juneteenth, accessed June 15, 2020

National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, About, accessed June 15, 2020

Truman Library Institute, PROCLAMATION 2824—NATIONAL FREEDOM DAY, Jan. 25, 1949

Oklahoma History Center, Juneteenth, accessed June 17, 2020

Oxford African American Studies Center, Emancipation and the Meaning of Juneteenth, accessed June 17, 2020

JCPenney, CEO Jill Soltau Shares a Juneteenth Message with Fellow Associates, June 15, 2020

ESPN, NFL to recognize Juneteenth as company holiday, June 12, 2020

Google trends, Juneteenth, accessed June 17, 2020

Juneteenth.com, History of Juneteenth, accessed June 15, 2020

Civil Rights Digital Library, Series of WSB-TV newsfilm clips of African Americans celebrating and demonstrating as they prepare for the Poor People's March on Washington, 1968, accessed June 17, 2020

PBS, What Is Juneteenth?, accessed June 18, 2020

The Atlantic, The Quintessential Americanness of Juneteenth, June 19, 2017

Wall Street Journal, Trump Talks Juneteenth, John Bolton, Economy, June 18, 2020

Email exchange, Dwayne Jones, chief executive officer, Galveston Historical Foundation, June 16, 2020

Interview, Mitch Kachun, emeritus professor of history, Western Michigan University, June 16, 2020

Email exchange, Anthony Greene, associate professor of African American studies, College of Charleston, June 16, 2020

 

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