Juneteenth: A holiday of celebration, reflection, education

June 15, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — What began on June 19 as a celebration of the emancipation of slavery in Texas, Juneteenth — an amalgamation of the words “June” and “nineteenth” — has become a holiday commemorating the end of slavery throughout the United States. Also called Emancipation Day, Juneteenth refers to the day in 1865, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, that Union soldiers finally arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced the liberation of enslaved people.

AnneMarie Mingo, assistant professor of African American studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, and affiliate faculty member in the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State, offered some thoughts on the importance of Juneteenth and the opportunity for reflection on the holiday.

The Importance of Juneteenth

AnneMarie Mingo, assistant professor of African American studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, and affiliate faculty member in the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State, offers some thoughts on the importance of Juneteenth and the opportunity for reflection on the holiday.

Ben Manning

To understand more about the historical background of Juneteenth, we sat down with Rachel Shelden, associate professor of American history and director of the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State, about Juneteenth’s history and the significance of the holiday, then and now. 

Q: Many in the U.S. may be unfamiliar with the holiday and its significance. Could you provide some brief context into what was happening in the country at the time, and how the Emancipation Proclamation came into being and was disseminated across the country?

Shelden: Juneteenth was born out of the end of the U.S. Civil War, which historians now believe claimed 750,000 lives over the course of four years. The war itself was fundamentally a contest over the future of democratic governance and the institution of slavery. In 1860, slavery was an enormously powerful and profitable institution, though localized primarily in the southern states. White Southerners had long held outsized political power, allowing them to promote a federal pro-slavery agenda, including passing the single greatest expansion of federal power before the Civil War: The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. When Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election, a portion of the southern states feared the new president would interfere with slavery; so, they rejected the democratic result and seceded from the Union, forming the Confederate States of America. 

A miniature pamphlet with a light brown cover reading The Proclamation of Emancipation by the President of the United States, to take effect January 1st, 1863

A miniature pamphlet containing the text of the Emancipation Proclamation, produced in December 1862 specifically for Union soldiers to read and distribute among African Americans.

IMAGE: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The war began in 1861 as a struggle to bring those states back into the Union — to maintain democracy. But enslaved people also saw the war as an opportunity to escape their bondage. Black men and women ran to Union military lines, forcing the Lincoln administration and members of Congress to address the future of slavery head on. On Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed enslaved people in Confederate-controlled territory. When the war ended, nationwide freedom was enshrined in the Constitution in the 13th Amendment, passed by Congress in January 1865 and ratified by the states that December. So, in one of the great ironies of U.S. history, Confederates began the war to protect slavery and, in the process, created its demise.  

Q: Why the two-year delay in freeing slaves in some parts of the country? Was there resistance in the south?

Shelden: Because Confederates still controlled a large swath of southern territory by military force in January 1863, freedom came unevenly. Where the Union Army went, soldiers spread the word of the Proclamation and enslaved people seized their freedom. But Confederates did not give up their profitable institution willingly — they had seceded from the Union to create a new nation with slavery as its “cornerstone,” in the words of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. Texas was part of the Confederacy, and because of its more remote location, only a limited amount of fighting took place there. Enslaved Texans learned of the Emancipation Proclamation only when General Gordon Granger arrived with his Union Army on June 19, 1865. When enslaved men and women heard the news, they danced, they sang, they celebrated — they claimed their freedom.

Q: Interest in this holiday appears to be growing. Why do you think this is happening?

Shelden: I think the biggest reason is just the knowledge that it exists. Many Black Americans have long celebrated this holiday (and it is more well-known in Texas, where it is a state holiday), but when I teach about it in my classes, very few of my students who are not Black have heard of it or know about its context. Many have learned very little about the history of slavery, of emancipation, and especially of the period after the Civil War — known as Reconstruction — when Black Americans were finally granted many of the civil rights that had been denied to them only to see those rights once again taken away when white Southerners regained political power in the region. And that lack of knowledge about that period makes my students mad! So many of them ask, “Why didn’t I learn this before?” 

In the last few years, though, perhaps in part because news organizations have begun to hire more Black journalists, the national media has given much more attention to the holiday’s importance and its context. As the New York Times, NPR, and other outlets highlight the holiday, and more people learn about its history, I think there is a real hunger for that knowledge, even when U.S. history makes us uncomfortable. In many ways, the very act of celebrating Emancipation Day forces us to acknowledge the centrality of slavery to our national past.

Q: From a historian’s perspective, why is it important to commemorate historical events such as Juneteenth or the recent 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre? How do these events shape the national discourse today?

Shelden: One of the most important reasons is that many Americans have been denied this history. For generations after the Civil War, former Confederates and their progeny waged a wildly successful disinformation campaign that historians call the Lost Cause. Among other falsehoods, the Lost Cause erased slavery as the cause of the war and covered up or justified a century of heinous violence against Black communities in the years that followed. Even though the United States prevailed in 1865, the men and women who spent four years trying to destroy American democracy had an enormous influence on the way textbooks, monuments, museums, film, TV and other media told stories about our past — and in many cases still do. Commemorating these events allows us to give an honest accounting of our past, to recognize our failures and our triumphs, and better understand who we are as a nation. 

Q: Should Juneteenth be recognized as a national holiday as has been recently proposed in Congress?

Shelden: It is a testament to the power of the Lost Cause that in 2021 we still don’t have a holiday to celebrate emancipation. We absolutely should have a holiday — whether we celebrate that on Juneteenth or some other day — that acknowledges and celebrates the freedom of four million Black people whose families had been held in bondage for generations by their fellow Americans.

 

Last Updated June 16, 2021