The Historical Legacy of Juneteenth

Our country’s "Second Independence Day" has long been celebrated among the African American community, and it's time to share this history with a wider public

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Emancipation of the Negroes (1863-01-24) by Thomas NastOriginal Source: Library of CongressLibrary of Congress

The Juneteenth Celebration commemorates one of the most momentous events in American History...

...the emancipation of the last enslaved African Americans held in bondage in the Confederate States. 

Months later, with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, slavery was declared illegal in the nation.

Waiting for the Hour - Carte-de-visite of an emancipation watch night meeting (1863) by Heard & MoseleySmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

On “Freedom’s Eve” or the eve of January 1, 1863, the first Watch Night services took place. 

On that night, enslaved and free African Americans gathered in churches and private homes all across the country awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect.

Reading the Emancipation Proclamation (1864-01-01) by H.W. HerrickOriginal Source: Library of CongressLibrary of Congress

At the stroke of midnight, prayers were answered...

...as all enslaved people in the Confederate States were declared legally free.

African American Civil War Soldier Tintype (1861/1865) by Gift from the Liljenquist Family CollectionSmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Union soldiers, many of whom were black, marched onto plantations and across cities in the south...

The Proclamation of Emancipation Booklet Cover (1862) by John Murray ForbesSmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

...reading pocket-sized copies of the Emancipation Proclamation...

Emancipation Proclamation Booklet Pg 1 (1862) by John Murray ForbesSmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

...spreading the news of freedom.

Enslaved people on Smith's Plantation (1862) by Timothy H. O'SullivanOriginal Source: Library of CongressLibrary of Congress

But not everyone in Confederate territory would immediately be free. 

American Civil War Map (2007) by Andrei nacuOriginal Source: WikipediaWikipedia

Even though the Emancipation Proclamation was made effective in 1863, Confederate states, as seen in gray on this map, refused to implement the federal legislation. It took the war to secure freedom.

Texas was the westernmost Confederate state and the last to surrender.  This meant that African Americans enslaved in Texas did not gain their freedom until almost two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. 

General Order No. 3 Enforces Emancipation in Texas (1865-07-07) by New York TimesOriginal Source: New York TimesNew York Times

On June 19, 1865 that changed, when enslaved African Americans in Galveston, TX were notified by the arrival of some 2,000 Union troops under the command of Gen. Gordon Granger, that they...

...along with the more than 250,000 other enslaved black people in the state, were free by executive decree.

Gen. Granger is said to have read General Order No. 3 aloud from the balcony of Ashton Villa Mansion.

The Fifteenth Amendment Celebrations (1870-05-19) by Thomas KellySmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The post-emancipation period known as Reconstruction (1865-1877) marked an era of great hope, uncertainty, and struggle for the nation as a whole. 


Formerly enslaved people immediately sought to reunify families...


...establish schools...


...run for political office...


...push radical legislation, and even sue slaveholders for compensation. 


This was nothing short of amazing! Not even a generation out of enslavement, African Americans were inspired and empowered to completely transform their lives and their country.

Emancipation Proclamation Legacy (2012-12-17) by National Museum of African American History and CultureSmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Band at the Juneteenth Celebration in Eastwoods Park (1900) by Grace Murray StephensonOriginal Source: Austin History CenterAustin History Center

Juneteenth was celebrated  by newly freed African Americans as soon as freedom came. By 1867 the Freedmen's Bureau, a federal agency created to help African Americans transition from slavery to freedom, helped establish the first official Juneteenth celebration.

Martha Yates Jones and Pinkie Yates in a Juneteenth Buggy (1908-06-19) by Schlueters Advertising & Souvenir PhotographsOriginal Source: Houston Public Library Digital LibraryHouston Public Library Digital Library

A few years after freedom came, ministers John Henry "Jack" Yates and Elias Dibble established Emancipation Park with the purchase of ten acres of land in Houston, TX. Today the park continues to serve as a site for memorable Juneteenth celebrations.

African Americans preparing cotton for the gin (1862) by Timothy H. O'SullivanOriginal Source: Library of CongressLibrary of Congress

The memory of when freedom came and its meaning resonates with a group of Americans who struggled to make it real and transform a nation. 

Emancipation Day Richmond VA (1905) by Detroit Publishing CoOriginal Source: Library of CongressLibrary of Congress

The tradition of Juneteenth Celebrations and other Emancipation Day celebrations began shortly after freedom came. Emancipation celebrations occur throughout the Diaspora, lifting up the meaning of freedom.

Juneteenth Celebration Eastwoods Park (1900-06-19) by Grace Murray StephensonOriginal Source: Austin History CenterAustin History Center

First held in 1867 in Austin, and seen here in 1900 in Galveston, the Juneteenth celebration became a state holiday in Texas in 1980. Many states soon followed. 

The tradition and ​the historical legacy of Juneteenth shows the value of never giving up hope in uncertain times. 

Pennsylvania Governor Signs Juneteenth Legislation (2020-06-19) by Governor Tom Wolf's StaffOriginal Source: Governor Tom Wolf - FacebookGovernor Tom Wolf - Facebook

In 2019, through the tireless efforts of community leaders, Juneteenth became a state holiday in Pennsylvania; now one of 47 states and the District of Columbia that recognize Juneteenth as a holiday.

Gov. Wolf declared, "While Independence Day marks the conception of a free nation, Juneteenth is a celebration of the fulfillment of this ideal through the Emancipation Proclamation."

Juneteenth Parade in Harlem, New York (2018-06-19) by Amsterdam News - New YorkOriginal Source: New Amsterdam NewsNew Amsterdam News

Communities across the nation commemorate and celebrate June 19th with parades, picnics, performances, and speeches as they uplift the importance of community, education, civic engagement, and freedom.

Credits: Story

Learn more about the history of race and its connection to slavery 
on the National Museum of African American History and Culture 
Talking about Race website

Story by Mary N. Elliott, Curator
Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
And Marc Bretzfelder
Smithsonian Institution Office of the Chief Information Officer

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps