GUEST VIEW: Is Juneteenth Emancipation Day?

By William C. Hine

What is more precious than freedom? What is more worth celebrating than the end of enslavement and embracing of freedom? Since 1863, African-Americans and many others have enthusiastically marked the legal abolition of slavery in the United States.

On Jan. 1, 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that touched off rejoicing in Black communities in the North. But very few African-Americans were freed from bondage on that remarkable day. Limited in scope, the proclamation did not apply to enslaved people living in border states that had not seceded from the Union, such as Maryland and Kentucky, and no slave owner in the Confederate states freed their slaves because of Lincoln’s order.

Still, many enslaved people seized the opportunity to free themselves because of the proclamation, and many thousands more would do so as the war dragged on into 1864 and 1865. Moreover, enslaved people had been freeing themselves long before Lincoln’s proclamation. Since the first Africans were enslaved in the English colonies in North America in the 1600s, people gained freedom by running away and rising in rebellion. And on April 16, 1862, months before Lincoln’s proclamation, Congress outlawed slavery in Washington, D.C.

Slavery did not disappear in a single day and with a single act by the president. It took time, and it cost thousands of lives as Black and White troops fought to win the war, preserve the Union, and end the enslavement of nearly 4 million people.

How, then, did Juneteenth become a day for commemorating freedom and slavery’s end? Although the Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, when Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and U.S. military forces at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, a few Confederate political and military leaders continued to exercise authority in parts of the South in the vain hope that they might achieve victory.

On June 19, 1865, as Union armies gained control of southeastern Texas, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued Order #3 in Galveston, freeing those who remained in bondage among the nearly 250,000 people enslaved in the Lone Star State. Nationwide, slavery was finally eradicated with the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865.

In 1866, freed people in Texas began celebrating what they came to call “Juneteenth.” For decades Juneteenth was mostly a Texas commemoration. In 1938, Gov. James Allred declared Juneteenth “Emancipation Day.” By then, some Black Texans had joined the Great Migration, and they took Juneteenth festivities with them as they moved to other states, mainly in the North and West.

June 19 became a state holiday in Texas in 1980, thanks mainly to the efforts of Houston state legislator Al Edwards. Increasing numbers of African-Americans began celebrating Juneteenth as a holiday nationwide in the 1980s and 1990s. By 2006, 15 states recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday. Opal Lee, a 95-year-old Black woman from Fort Worth — the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” — saw her persistent efforts to make it a national holiday rewarded when President Biden declared on June 17, 2022, that henceforth June 19 would be a national holiday.

Yet long before Juneteenth became a national holiday, African-Americans traditionally observed January 1 as Emancipation Day. For decades after the Civil War, the first day of each year was greeted with exuberant gatherings that included parades, music, speeches, sermons and bountiful portions of food. On the 10th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1873, “throngs of colored people” adorned in “gorgeous garments” paraded through the streets of Charleston, South Carolina. Among those who participated in the festivities were Congressman Alonzo J. Ransier, the first Black member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Civil War hero Robert Smalls.

On January 1, 1900, Tuskegee Institute President Booker T. Washington addressed an Emancipation Day audience in Macon, Georgia, and offered — as he typically did — a message of racial uplift combined with criticism. “The Negro must have education and thrift. They must know how to apply their education. We have enough ministers and professional men for the present. We need to teach the masses how to get out of their shiftless and antiquated ways.”

The pageantry of the January 1 commemorations ebbed in the early 20th century as a rising tide of White supremacy advancing segregation, disfranchisement and lynching engulfed Black Americans. Gifted writer, diplomat and lawyer James Weldon Johnson sought hope amid these grim circumstances in a poem published in 1913 on the 50th anniversary of the proclamation that read in part:

“The staggering force of brutish might,

“That strikes and leaves us stunned and dazed;

“The long vain waiting through the night

“To hear some voice for justice raised.”

Less extravagant commemorations continued. In 1939, Mary McLeod Bethune, the president of Bethune Cookman College and a member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “unofficial” Black Cabinet, delivered an inspirational message at Allen University, an HBCU in Columbia, South Carolina, as she called on Black people to unite in their quest for a better future and to avoid indulging in acrimony and criticism of one another.

The centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation was widely celebrated as the civil rights movement gained momentum across the South. On January 1, 1963, less than nine months before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, there were a host of Emancipation Day observances across the nation.

In recent decades, more attention has been focused on extravagant New Year’s Eve festivities and New Year’s Day football games than on commemorating emancipation. The 150th anniversary of the proclamation passed almost unnoticed in 2013. With the enthusiastic adoption of Juneteenth as the holiday for celebrating the advent of freedom and slavery’s end, the January 1 remembrances have been all but forgotten.

William C. Hine is a professor emeritus of history at South Carolina State University. He wrote this for