Juneteenth: free at last

Juneteenth, celebrated each year on June 19, has Texas roots, as it's the state where news of emancipation came the latest.

Read descriptive transcript.

Carina Ray is associate professor of African and Afro-American Studies

The origins of Juneteenth are to be found in Texas, where slavery not only persisted but expanded after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863. Contrary to popular perception, the Proclamation did not end slavery in the United States. Rather, it declared enslaved African Americans free only in confederate states in rebellion. It also allowed free/d black men—who had been eager to serve since the outbreak of the war—to join the Union army, thereby augmenting its forces and ensuring the Union’s eventual victory. As a war measure, the Proclamation excluded vast swathes of the country where the Union saw no strategic value in ending slavery. This included Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, Tennessee, and parts of Virginia and Louisiana. Moreover, the freedom declared by the stroke of Lincoln’s pen in reality had to be wrested from the slave states on the battle field and thus it came very late to Texas which remained on the periphery of the Civil War until its end.  This made Texas a haven for slaveholders fleeing Union forces. In the wake of the Proclamation’s issue, the state’s enslaved population almost doubled with the arrival of more than 150,000 African American bondsmen and bondswomen. It was not until Confederate forces fell in the spring of 1865 that slavery finally fell with it too. Still it was not until June 19th—hence the name Juneteenth—of that year that news of their freedom reached African Americans in Texas.

The foregoing explains why Juneteenth is celebrated as Freedom Day in Texas. But it begs the question of why Juneteenth is celebrated by African Americans throughout the United States. The answer is simple. African descended people in America have long understood that our freedom from slavery was incomplete until the day that all of us were free from its shackles. We celebrate Juneteenth because it represents our collective freedom as a people, rather than the piecemeal, protracted, and fractured freedom that the series of decrees and legislative acts, beginning with the Emancipation Proclamation, bequeathed to us.  

Categories: General, Humanities and Social Sciences

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