Juneteenth: What it means, and why it’s still celebrated

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Juneteenth What it is, and why it's still celebrated
Juneteenth is a celebration of Black freedom — but if you weren’t very aware of it, you’re not alone. In fact, the celebration fell out of favor for decades, and has made a couple of comebacks.

But it hasn’t only had a revival — its meaning has also changed somewhat.

“While an older generation of Blacks remembers Juneteenth as a day of rejoicing about their freedom,” wrote Marilyn Marshall in the Austin American-Statesman on June 19, 1975, “a younger generation would like to see it not only as a celebration of liberation, but for its importance as part of black history.”

You can find out more below with the original proclamation, and some perspectives from the ’70s.

Also, throughout this post, we have featured restored antique portraits of Black Americans from the 1800s and early 1900s. One person has been identified, but the other names have been lost to time. (The original images are courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum.)

Antique portrait photo of an African American man (3)

Official proclamation about what came to be known as “Juneteenth”

Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865

General Orders, No. 3

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. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

By order of: Maj. Gen. Granger / F W Emery, Maj. & A A G

Juneteenth order of June 19, 1865 - Galveston


Juneteenth significant to all (1975)

Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Texas) June 15, 1975

If there’s anybody qualified to speak on the significance of Juneteenth, it’s Dr. Melvin Banks, chairman of the division of social sciences at Dallas’ Bishop College.

Dr. Banks, who has taught at Bishop 40 years, doesn’t have to refer to a history book when asked about Juneteenth. He has seen Juneteenth in its heyday. has seen its decline and now is witnessing its rebirth.

Antique portrait of an African American girl (2)

Dr. Banks was born in Montgomery, Alabama. He was educated at Howard University and the University of Colorado. He received his doctorate in history and political science at Syracuse University. His doctoral dissertation was on “The Quest of Equality: The Movement for First-Class Citizenship Among Negroes in Texas, 1920-1950.”

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A few months ago, Dr. Banks sat in his cluttered Bishop College office and retraced the origins of Juneteenth.

It began on June 19, 1865, when Gen. Gordon Granger landed on Galveston, and issued in the name of the US government a proclamation declaring all of the approximately 200,000 slaves in Texas free.

The word got to Texas slaves two years after the proclamation went into effect.

“You see, Texas was sort of a state on the outer fringe of the Confederacy. It occupied a very peculiar position in the Civil War. Not much fighting was going on here. It was the bread basket and the supply basket for the Confederacy,” Dr. Banks said.

Slavery, for the most part, went undisturbed in Texas during the Civil War, Dr. Banks said. “And the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln had issued to go into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, didn’t affect Texas. There was nobody here to enforce it,” — until Gen. Granger and his troops arrived.

2014.94.16

“That’s the first celebration. When the news got out at Galveston, folk went wild down in that neck of the woods.”

But most of the slaves were in East Texas then, and government troops moved inland to spread the word.

MORE: Fighting for the Union: 20 African American soldiers from the Civil War

“Now just like up in other states, there were some pockets where some (slave) masters maintained strict control even after the amendment abolishing slavery. But on the whole, slavery throughout the state, slavery as an institution, was abolished,” Dr. Banks said.

The earliest Juneteenth celebrations were occasions for political rallying where the newly freed slaves received voting instructions.

‘It was a day when subjects of interest were discussed. It was a day for great games. Later on, baseball and other activities became part of the festival… It was a day of singing. Some places had preaching… It was a great day,” Dr. Banks said.

Antique portrait of an African American girl (1)

The celebrations grew as Blacks became concentrated in the Fort Worth — Dallas area, in Mexia, throughout East Texas, and in Houston, where Emancipation Park was built under the leadership of a Baptist preacher, Jack Yates.

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But something happened when the 1950s arrived. Juneteenth celebrations lost something. The massive celebrations stopped.

“It was the beginning of the integra-movement, Dr. Banks said, and Black folks didn’t want anything that might attach them to the ancient stigma of being Black.

It was the beginning of the integration movement, when a whole lot of folks thought that in order to be abreast of the changes in that time, you had to cut loose from everything Black.

“It was the big battle raging for equality; for first-class citizenship. At that time, anything that smacked of the old order was frowned upon.”

There were some Blacks who said they didn’t need Black history, Dr. Banks said. “That was in the beginning, and then some discovered we did need it.”

Antique portrait of a couple - Cabinet card

It wasn’t until the 1970s that Juneteenth really began making a comeback.

“You see, the idea at one time when we talked of integration was that in order to be integrated, group institutions and group heritages had to be pushed aside.

“Now, I think all America gravitates around the idea of a pluralistic society in which you have a common culture but each group has some of its own peculiarities and institutions of development to which it clings,”‘ he said. The melting pot concept never was, Dr. Banks said.

“It was a melting pot in that some of the ingredients of everybody went into the soup. But the beans and the peas and the com all remained the same. And that’s good because it’s diversity. Just like the Jews and their religious practices. Just like the Blacks and some of their music practices.”

2014.61.29

“During that period of cultural deprivation, some Blacks didn’t want their children attending all-Black schools because they didn’t think Black teachers were good enough, Dr. Banks said.

“Some of them even left the Black church. I think they were sincere about it. They had been hunting a hundred years for the promised land, and thought they had it. They discovered they didn’t have it. And they discovered that no group in America has given up everything it possesses in order to become a part of a melting pot that didn’t exist,” Dr. Banks said.

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He foresees a continuation of Juneteenth celebrations. “And I think we’re going to have a revival of a number of Black institutions that have suffered during these days. Like the Black church is taking on new enthusiasm among us.

Handpainted photograph of Theo Lane, a member of the Smith family
Handpainted photograph of Theo Lane, a member of the Smith family

“There were times when church groups didn’t sing spirituals. And really the whites took over the spirituals, and have really done a wonderful job of perpetuating them. Now we’re returning to them.

“I think every people ought to remember the landmarks of its forward MARCH. I don’t think any person or any group of people can expect to go forward if it cuts itself loose from its ancient landmarks,” he said.

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Dr. Banks says he celebrates Juneteenth to rejoice that God with the help of determined Blacks and whites abolished slavery and “set us on the path to identity and full recognition in society.

“We haven’t achieved all of this yet, but we are way down the road on it,” he says. ”And there are a whole lot of people who are with us in it.”

He doesn’t feel Juneteenth should be celebrated exclusively by Black people. There have been marks made in American history for which all people should rejoice, Dr. Banks says.

Antique portrait of Black woman

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