Today, I wanted to find a way to observe the newest US federal holiday — but somehow shouting “Happy Juneteenth!” just doesn’t feel appropriate. Instead, I took the long overdue action of educating myself about the history of this historic day. I have to admit I was a little confused about its origin and meaning. I assumed it commemorated the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation — but a bit of research online showed me how wrong I was! Certainly part of the blame for this gap in my knowledge lies with my high school history curriculum, which completely passed over this “minor” detail in covering the American Civil War and Reconstruction.
But of course, I’ve been out of high school a very long time.
So, for anyone else who hasn’t been paying attention until this year, here’s what I now understand:
The Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves held in the confederate states, took effect on January 1, 1863. But it wasn’t until Congress passed the 13th Amendment in April 1864 that emancipation was made national policy. This amendment was signed by Lincoln in February 1865 and ratified in December of that same year.
Not surprisingly, even after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect it wasn’t immediately implemented throughout the American South. Union soldiers spread the news of the new law as they moved deeper into Confederate territory. It wasn’t until two years after it took effect, in mid June 1865, when federal troops reached Galveston Bay, Texas, that enslaved blacks in that state learned of the executive decree. This is the date, June 19th, that became known as Juneteenth.
Of course, there’s so much more to the story; and it’s a story that’s so uncomfortable to many of us that we would rather ignore it. But Juneteenth is not just “black history” — it’s American history. And historical dates aren’t just dates; they are events that touched and changed the lives of many people and continue to affect all of us even today.
Here are a few ideas about how to observe Juneteenth this year: