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History Lesson: Juneteenth

Today we are going to learn about our newest Federal Holiday: Juneteenth!

In case you are asking yourself, “But isn’t Juneteenth already a holiday in Massachusetts?,” you are correct! It is a Massachusetts legal holiday and it has been since 2020. In Massachusetts, legal state holidays are days in which state, county, and municipal offices are closed but everything else may be open. The United States Senate just passed a bill, written by our Senator, Ed Markey, to make Juneteenth a Federal Holiday. On Wednesday evening, the House also passed this bill and President Biden will sign it into law making Juneteenth a new American Federal Holiday! (A Federal Holiday means that all government offices are closed, and federal employees have a new paid vacation day.)

So what exactly is Juneteenth? Let’s find out. To put it simply, Juneteenth marks the true end of slavery in the United States. It commemorates June 19,1865, when Union Army General Gordon Granger proclaimed freedom from slavery in Texas, nearly two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Emancipation Proclamation, which took  effect January 1, 1863, basically stated that unless the Confederate States returned to the Union by that date, all of their enslaved people “shall be then, thenceforward and forever free.”  The Confederate States did NOT rejoin the Union and the Civil War was fought for two more years. It didn’t officially end until April 9, 1865 and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery, wasn’t ratified until December 6th, 1865.

After January 1st 1863, the Union considered all enslaved people to be free but all enslaved people were not free. Let’s let the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture take over the narrative:

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. At the stroke of midnight, prayers were answered as all enslaved people in Confederate States were declared legally free. Union soldiers, many of whom were black, marched onto plantations and across cities in the south reading small copies of the Emancipation Proclamation spreading the news of freedom in Confederate States. Only through the Thirteenth Amendment did emancipation end slavery throughout the United States.

But not everyone in Confederate territory would immediately be free. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation was made effective in 1863, it could not be implemented in places still under Confederate control. As a result, in the westernmost Confederate state of Texas, enslaved people would not be free until much later. Freedom finally came on June 19, 1865, when some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. The army announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved black people in the state, were free by executive decree. This day came to be known as “Juneteenth,” by the newly freed people in Texas.

Juneteenth is considered by many to be America’s Second Independence Day, a fact that is reflected the official name of the federal holiday – Juneteenth National Independence Day.

The City of Boston has compiled a list of Juneteenth events and celebrations in Boston this year! You can check them out here!  Join the party and celebrate freedom!

Image via the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture  Emancipation Day celebration, June 19, 1900 held in “East Woods” on East 24th Street in Austin. Credit: Austin History Center.

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Anna White

Lower End homeowner since 2005. Mom of three BPS kids. Friend to all except those who don’t clean up after their dogs and/or who put their trash out in kitchen bags (seriously, people, it’s not that hard to use a barrel). Queen of the Nerds (okay that one is only in my dreams).