Juneteenth is celebrated in the US as the abolition of slavery, however in Canada and the Caribbean, though we're deeply aware of our neighbour's history, we celebrate the emancipation of slavery on August 1st. Today we'd like to highlight some of the key freedom fighters in the Juneteenth achievement. It’s especially relevant with Father’s Day also falling in June, when we celebrate Black fathers, grandfathers, and other ancestors, many of whom fought for racial equality and civil rights to pave the way for our generation today.
As the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln played a crucial role in the emancipation of enslaved African Americans through the Emancipation Proclamation. Although issued on January 1, 1863, the news of this proclamation reached Texas more than two years later, on June 19, 1865, thanks to General Gordon Granger's arrival.
Lincoln's proclamation laid the foundation for the eventual freedom of all enslaved individuals in the United States. We say “eventual” because emancipation didn’t happen instantly, as you’ll read in the story below.
Union General Gordon Granger
On June 19, 1865, General Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with Union troops and read General Orders No. 3, officially proclaiming the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in Texas. This announcement marked the effective end of slavery in the state and became the basis for the annual celebration of Juneteenth (“June” plus “nineteenth”).
For slaves who didn’t know they were free, 1860s life didn’t change immediately. For Black men and women living in border states, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 wasn’t enforced the way it was in other areas occupied by Union troops. Many slave owners didn’t tell their slaves — most of whom couldn’t read and didn’t get the news — that they were free. Some kept people enslaved until they were forced to give them freedom; others procrastinated until harvests and other work they wanted done for free were finished.
Furthermore, part of General Orders No. 3 encouraged freed slaves to remain with their former masters and work for wages, leaving them at the mercy of those who had treated them horrendously for years or even generations. In spite of the recommendations in General Orders No. 3, many freed slaves fled states like Texas in search of separated family members and a better life elsewhere. This became known as “the Scatter.”
When we speak of notable African Americans who helped change the world, Frederick Douglass is often one of the first people who comes to mind. As an influential abolitionist and social reformer, Frederick Douglass played a pivotal role in advocating for the rights and freedom of African Americans.
One of the most lauded orators of all time, Douglass highlighted the importance of Juneteenth as a commemoration of emancipation and as a call to continue fighting for equality and justice. Douglass delivered powerful speeches that shed light on the struggles faced by African Americans and called for the eradication of slavery and racial discrimination.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
While Martin Luther King Jr. is widely recognized for his leadership during the civil rights movement, he also spoke about the significance of Juneteenth. He saw Juneteenth as a celebration of freedom and used it as an opportunity to emphasize the ongoing struggle for racial equality in America.
King believed that Juneteenth served as a reminder of the work still to be done to achieve true freedom and justice for all. Although slaves had been officially freed in 1863, Jim Crow laws and racial inequality were pervasive in the United States even 100 years later, especially in the South. Celebrations of Juneteenth had dwindled in the early 20th century. King hoped that the Poor People’s March of 1968, also known as the Poor People's Campaign, would help revive Juneteenth when participants returned home afterward.
Rep. Al Edwards
Sometimes called the father of today’s Juneteenth holiday, Representative Al Edwards, an African American legislator from Texas, is often credited with spearheading the movement to recognize Juneteenth as an official state holiday. In 1979, Edwards successfully sponsored a bill that made Juneteenth a state holiday in Texas, making it the first state to do so.
Edwards’ efforts paved the way for the widespread recognition and celebration of Juneteenth across the United States. It wasn’t until June 17, 2021, however, that Juneteenth became a federal holiday when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act.
The individuals above, each in their own way, contributed to the establishment, recognition, and promotion of Juneteenth as a significant holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans and as a symbol of the ongoing fight for equality and justice.
For African Americans, Juneteenth is an important holiday. But it should be for all Americans who value freedom and a just society. History has shown us that if prejudice against one group is tolerated, it’s only a matter of time before no one is really emancipated.
Do your coworkers and friends know about the history of Juneteenth? Do you wish they understood the fight for freedom and equality better? It can be difficult to start that conversation, so that’s what we’re here to help with. Reach out and schedule a meeting today to take the first step.