In 2021, the United States Congress declared the first federal holiday in almost 40 years: Juneteenth.
Juneteenth honors and celebrates the emancipation of slaves in the United States, but why do we celebrate it on this day, and how did this holiday come about?
When exactly did slavery end and how do other countries celebrate the abolition of slavery?
Learn more about Juneteenth, aka Emancipation Day, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
In order to answer the question of why Juneteenth is celebrated on June 19th, we should first address the issue of when exactly slavery ended.
The institution of African slavery in the Western Hemisphere started in the early as the 16th century when enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas by the Spanish.
The institution of African slavery dramatically grew through the 18th century all throughout the British, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies. For several centuries, slavery was legal pretty much everywhere in the Americas, even if the practice of it was mostly concentrated in several agricultural regions.
Ending slavery was a process that took almost a century before it was fully extinguished in the Western Hemisphere.
The first place to formally end slavery was the Republic of Vermont in 1777 which freed men over 21 and women over the age of 18. However, it was weakly enforced and it didn’t free everyone.
In 1780, Pennsylvania freed the children of all slaves but didn’t free slaves themselves. The last slave in Pennsylvania died in 1847.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that slavery violated the state constitution in 1780 and immediately emancipated everyone.
Soon after New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island begin the gradual elimination of slavery.
In 1793, the colony of Upper Canada, now known as Ontario, became the first part of the British Empire to put a limit on slavery when they passed the Act Against Slavery. This banned the importation of slaves and freed all current children of slaves when they turned 25.
Ohio abolished slavery in 1802 and New Jersey in 1804.
That same year, Haiti achieved independence and abolished slavery via a hard-won revolution against France.
In 1808 the United States abolished the import and export of slaves, which was followed by Britain in 1811, the Netherlands in 1814, and France in 1815.
These were all steps in the right direction, but they didn’t actually free anyone. There was no emancipation of anyone currently enslaved.
Over the next several years, most major European power banned the slave trade or at least did so bilaterally with other European countries.
The 1820s began to see the formal abolishment of slavery.
As many Spanish colonies became independent, the elimination of slavery was one of the first things they did.
Chile ended slavery in 1823, and Mexico and Central America abolished it in 1824.
The biggest blow against slavery up until this point came on August 1, 1834, when the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 took effect. This banned slavery throughout almost all of the British empire, but in reality, it was a six-year phase-out. It freed everyone under the age of six immediately and reclassified slaves over the age of six as “apprentices”. These “apprentices” were then freed on August 1, 1838, and finally, once and for all, on August 1, 1840.
August 1 is still celebrated today throughout the former British colonies in the Caribbean as Emancipation Day.
Depending on the country, it might officially be observed on the first Monday in August, but it is one of the biggest holidays of the year. In Jamaica, it is part of a week-long celebration which includes their independence day on August 6, and in Barbados, it is celebrated alongside their annual Crop Over the festival.
I actually happened to be in Bridgetown, Barbados one year during Crop Over and it was quite the experience.
Over the next several years more and more countries abolished the trading of slaves, and in 1845 the British began actively pursuing slave ships in the Atlantic. If you remember back to my episode on the island of Saint Helena, many of the slaves freed from slave ships were brought there before being returned to Africa.
In 1848 France finally banned slavery in its colonies. The French Islands in the Caribbean celebrate Emancipation Day on May 22 on the island of Martinique, and on May 27 on the islands of Guadeloupe and Saint Martin.
In 1853 and 1854 Peru, Argentina, and Venezuela abolished slavery.
By 1860, there were only a few major countries where slavery still existed: the United States, Cuba, and Brazil. Cuba outlawed slavery in 1862, and Brazil was the last country to outlaw slavery in 1888.
For the rest of this episode, I’m going to be focusing on the abolition of slavery in the United States and how we got to Juneteenth.
I’ve done a few episodes in the past where I try to nail down a date when something officially happened. The end of World War II and the independence of the United States are both events that have no clear date you can point to, even though we still celebrate Independence Day on July 4th and VE-Day on May 8th.
So too is the case with the abolishment of slavery in the United States. There are various dates we can point to where significant events took place and points where we can say “most people were freed”, and when the very very last vestiges of slavery were eliminated once and for all.
Various US states have celebrated different Emancipation Days because Emancipation arrived in those states on different days.
One of the misconceptions that people have about the American Civil War is that they think that all of the free states fought all of the slave states. This isn’t quite true. The Union actually had four states where slavery was still legal: Kentucky, Delaware, Maryland, and the newly created state of West Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia.
Washington DC celebrates April 16 as DC Emancipation Day as that was the date in 1862 when President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act.
The next big event occurred nine months later on January 1, 1863, when President Lincoln issued the executive order known as the ??Emancipation Proclamation.
The ??Emancipation Proclamation legally freed any slave in any state which was in rebellion.
Practically, this could only be enforced if the Union Army was in control of a Confederate area. While the ??Emancipation Proclamation applied de jure to 3.5 of the estimated 4 million enslaved people in the United States, de facto, it only freed somewhere in the neighborhood of about 50,000 when it was announced.
It also, importantly, did not free anyone who was enslaved in any of the Union states.
Over the next several years, the actual freedom of black slaves in the south was achieved by the advancing of Union forces. As word of the ??Emancipation Proclamation spread, slaves knew that their freedom was at hand once they could make it to the Union lines.
Maryland ended slavery on November 1, 1864, and that date is celebrated today.
On April 3, 1865, Richmond, Virginia fell, which is the date of Emancipation celebrated in Virginia.
On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered, ending the Civil War for all practical purposes. However, it took time for the word to spread.
Mississippi celebrates emancipation on May 8, when word got to slaves in the eastern part of the state.
Georgia celebrates on May 29.
Kentucky and Tennessee celebrate Emancipation on August 8.
The almost last nail in the coffin of slavery was hammered on December 6, 1865, when Georgia ratified the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery once and for all in the United States.
Why did I say “almost” last nail in the coffin? Wasn’t the 13th Amendment the last word on the matter?
Almost. There was one small place left in what we would now consider the United States that wasn’t a state at the time where slavery still existed.
This was the Choctaw Nation in what is today the state of Oklahoma but was then known as Indian Territory.
The Indian Territory was not part of the United States and was not subject to the US Constitution. The Choctaw had allied themselves with the Confederacy during the Civil War as they also practiced race-based slavery.
After the war, the United States negotiated a new treaty with the Choctaw, and part of the treaty was the abolishment of slavery. On April 28, 1866, with the signing of the treaty, the very last ember of the inferno that was slavery was finally extinguished in the United States.
So, where does that leave Juneteenth?
As I mentioned, actual de facto real freedom came to many people as news of the end of the war spread.
The states which saw fighting and Union forces received word first. Texas was part of the Confederacy, but there was very little fighting there and they were far away from the events of Appomatox Courthouse.
On June 19th, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and issued General Order No. 3.
General Order No. 3 was a notification to the state of Texas of the news and enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The general order read:
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.
This was the basis of the holiday known as Juneteenth. As you probably have guessed, Juneteenth is just a portmanteau of the word “June” and “Nineteenth”.
Juneteenth was the, for all practical purposes, end to slavery, even though there was still work to be done over the next several months.
Juneteenth celebrations began the very next year in 1866 by the freed African-American slaves in Galveston, and it was initially known as “Jubilee Day”.
Even though they were free, they were not treated equally. Jubilee Day celebrations were barred in many public parks. In 1872, members of several black churches in Houston purchased 10 acres of land where they could celebrate.
Today, that land is known as Emancipation Park, and it is the oldest city park in the State of Texas.
Other black-owned parks were purchased and Jubilee Day became a huge celebration by the late 19th century. Some celebrations had upwards of 30,000 people in attendance. It was around this time that the term Juneteenth began to come into use.
During the Jim Crow era of the early 20th century, efforts were made to suppress Juneteenth celebrations but despite these efforts, it never went away.
During the Great Migration of African Americans in the early 20th century from the rural south to northern urban areas, many Texans took the celebration with them.
In 1938, the Governor of Texas recgonized June 19th as Emancipation Day for all black citizens in Texas, albeit not an official holiday.
It eventually became an official holiday on January 1, 1980, when a bill naming it as such was passed by the Texas state legislature.
Oklahoma, Florida, and Minnesota also recognized Juneteenth before the year 2000 as a holiday. After that, the floodgates opened and every state, save for South Dakota had declared it a state holiday by 2021. The 49th state to recognize it was Hawaii.
With 49 states already recognizing it as a holiday, it was a short step to receive federal recognition.
On June 17, 2021, the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act was signed into law becoming the 11th federal holiday in the United States.
While there are many days that could be celebrated as Emancipation Day in the US, Juneteenth is as good as any.
It marked a major milestone in the abolition of slavery, and it has been regularly celebrated by the descendants of freed slaves in Texas for over 150 years.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener geordie pedant over at Apple Podcasts in Great Britain. They write,
Charles Parsons and the steam engine
Love the shows but you got the wrong Charles Parsons when talking about the steam turbine. The Charles Parsons who invented the steam turbine was British, not American.
Thanks, geordie! I stand corrected. Sir Charles Algernon Parsons, Order of Merit, Knight of the Order of Bath, and member of the Royal Society, was in fact very British. I’m guessing you know this as a geordie because Charles Parsons worked in Newcastle.
However, just to be stubborn, I am going to start a multi-year campaign to have him awarded honorary American citizenship.
Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.