Understanding Juneteenth

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Written by Guy Nave

What Is Juneteenth?

On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger announced in Galveston, Texas, that the Civil War had ended and that President Abraham Lincoln had issued a proclamation ordering the emancipation of “all persons held as slaves within any state” guilty of “rebellion against the United States.” This of course included the more than 250,000 enslaved black people in the state of Texas.

While Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had been issued two and a half years earlier, on January 1, 1863, many slaveholding states had ignored and resisted Lincoln’s executive order. The state of Texas was the last stronghold of resistance.

After the capture of New Orleans in 1862, thousands of white Confederate slave owners from Mississippi, Louisiana, and other slaveholding states began migrating to Texas with enslaved black people to escape the Union Army’s reach. This migration was one of the last of several slave migrations that dislocated over a million enslaved black people. By the end of the war, several thousands of enslaved black people had been forced to make the trek into Texas, the westernmost state of the Confederacy.

After the war ended, on April 9, 1865, white Texans remained resistant to freeing enslaved black people. Due to the minimal number of Union troops present in Texas, slavery continued in the state until Major General Granger and 2,000 federal troops marched into Galveston and took possession of the state.

Juneteenth is a commemoration of that event. It is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.

It is important to understand that black people did not remain enslaved in Texas two and a half years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation because black people were “unaware” of the proclamation. They remained enslaved because Texas was defiant of the proclamation.

Although Lincoln’s executive order made slavery illegal in Confederate states, the order did not end slavery in those states.

Slavery continued because state governments and white slaveholders defied Lincoln’s executive order. During the war, the freedom of enslaved black people depended more on the presence of the Union army than the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. General Granger and federal troops rode into Galveston not simply to make the people of Texas aware of Lincoln’s order, they came to enforce that order.

The protracted defiance of Texas, as well as the defiance of other slaveholding states, to Lincoln’s executive order, illustrates the power of structural and systemic racism that has existed (and continues to exist) in the United States of America since the nation’s inception.

Immediately following the announcement that enslaved black people were to be freed and given “an absolute equality” of rights, black people were beaten, lynched, and murdered by white Texans operating with relative impunity. According to historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner, “The war may not have brought a great deal of bloodshed to Texas, but the peace certainly did.”[1]

Despite continued white defiance and minimal federal protection, formerly enslaved black Texans did what black Americans have done for hundreds of years—they utilized as best they could the legal protections afforded them to make life better for themselves.

Most black Americans do not observe Juneteenth as a way of celebrating what a racist slaveholding nation did for black people on June 19, 1865. Instead, black Americans observe Juneteenth as a way of honoring and celebrating what black people have done for themselves in a nation that has never unequivocally declared that black lives matter.

While June 19, 1865, marks a date the US government attempted to enforce Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, it is not the day black Americans gained “freedom” in this country. The Emancipation Proclamation itself did not grant black Americans “freedom.” The proclamation declared freedom only for those enslaved blacks living in Confederate states.

William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, commented, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.” The history of black people in America has consistently been one of brutal ironies and paradoxes as it relates to so-called “freedom.”

June 19, 1865, does not mark the achievement of freedom for black Americans, it simply serves as a specific date in history for black Americans to collectively honor and celebrate our ongoing struggle for the achievement of freedom in this country.

Freedom was not attained by black Americans on June 19, 1865. It was not attained by black Americans on January 1, 1863. It was not attained by black Americans with the passing of the 13th Amendment, the 14th Amendment, the 15th Amendment, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or any other piece of legislation. For more than 150 years before June 19, 1865, and for the 155 years since that day, black people have been fighting for genuine freedom in America.

The abolition of slavery is not the same thing as freedom. Freedom entails the ability to determine one’s own life and destiny. Since the abolition of slavery, black people have been fighting for the freedoms associated with full citizenship in these United States of America. We have fought for:

  • freedom to vote and run for elected office
  • freedom to live wherever we want to live
  • freedom to go to school wherever we want
  • freedom to work and play wherever we want
  • freedom to exist without fear of being victims of racialized violence
  • freedom from racial disparities and inequities that diminish our quality of life

Despite the white violence and black bloodshed that followed General Granger’s order, black people rallied around June 19 and transformed a day of unheeded military orders into a commemoration, “Juneteenth,” beginning one year later in 1866.

In 1980, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official state holiday. Since then 46 other states and the District of Columbia have recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday. Juneteenth has yet to be recognized, however, as a national holiday.

Juneteenth commemorates and celebrates a significant turning point that has sparked other turning points in the struggle of black Americans for genuine freedom in this nation. It is a reminder of the strength and power of black perseverance in the face of the unspeakable horrors of slavery. It is also a source of strength for continued perseverance in the struggle against the ongoing horrors of systemic and structural oppression and racialized violence committed against black people in this nation.

Juneteenth celebrates the fact that black lives matter and that no human beings should be subjected to systemic and structural oppression and violence. Juneteenth is a day that ALL freedom-loving Americans should honor and celebrate because it represents the proclaimed ideal of American freedom.

[1] Elizabeth Hayes Turner, “Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory,” in Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas, ed. Gregg Cantrell and Elizabeth Hayes Turner (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007), 143–175, 147



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About the author

Guy Nave

Guy Nave is a professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His research focuses on the topics of Christianity, religion and social justice, the social construction of religious meaning, and race-religion-and-politics. Professor Nave is currently researching the power, politics, and meaning behind the rhetoric of "change."

He is the author of several articles and book chapters, and he served as a New Testament Greek translator for the 2011 Common English Bible. His commentary on 2 Corinthians is published in the African American New Testament Commentary, and his book, The Role and Function of Repentance in Luke-Acts has been identified as “the standard scholarly work on repentance in the New Testament.”

Guy Nave received his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Yale University. In addition to his blog posts here, he is a frequent contributor to Sojourners Magazine's online "Commentary" blog series.

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