Skip to Main Content

Juneteenth

Need Help? Ask a librarian

Call: (617) 989-4040 (option 3)

Email: ref@wit.edu

Lots of questions? Schedule a Research Consultation

Introduction to Juneteenth

What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Originally celebrated in Texas after the emancipation of 250,000 enslaved peoples in the state in 1865, June 19th is now recognized as a celebrated holiday in 47 states in the US. Today, Juneteenth is a day that celebrates African American freedom and achievement, while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures. The day has sparked a global movement and countless organizations that promote and cultivate knowledge and appreciation of African American history and culture. (National Registry of Juneteenth Organizations & Supporters)


 

A History of Juneteenth

General Orders, No. 3. U.S. House, 54th Congress, 1st Session (H. Doc. 369, Part 2). “General Order Number 3,” 1896. U.S. Documents Collection. Y 1.1/2: SERIAL 3437Union general Gordon GrangerOn June 19 ("Juneteenth"), 1865, Union general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and issued General Order Number 3, which 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. The freed are advised to remain 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." 

(Texas State Library and Archive Commission)

Texas Juneteenth Day Celebration, 1900 (Austin History Center, Austin Public Library)Approximately 250,000 enslaved persons were emancipated in the following months. The news was followed by an array of personal celebrations across the state. The first broader celebrations of Juneteenth were used as political rallies and to teach freed African Americans about their voting rights. Within a short time, however, Juneteenth was marked by festivities throughout the state, some of which were organized by official Juneteenth committees. (Texas State Historical Association)

In the state capital, Juneteenth was first celebrated in 1867 under the direction of the Freedmen's Bureau and became part of the calendar of public events by 1872. Celebrations are typically marked with formal thanksgiving ceremonies, opened with the hymn "Lift Every Voice." In addition, public entertainment, picnics, and family reunions have often featured dramatic readings, pageants, parades, barbecues, and ball games. Blues festivals have also shaped the Juneteenth remembrance. (Texas State Historical Association

Emancipation Day celebration in Richmond, Virginia in 1905Dress was also an important element in early Juneteenth customs and is often still taken seriously, particularly by the direct descendants who can make the connection to this tradition's roots. During slavery, there were laws on the books in many areas that prohibited or limited the dressing of the enslaved. During the initial days of the emancipation celebrations, there are accounts of former slaves tossing their ragged garments into the creeks and rivers and adorning themselves with clothing taken from the plantations belonging to their former enslavers. (National Registry of Juneteenth Organizations & Supporters)

Juneteenth declined in popularity in the early 1960s, when the civil rights movement, with its push for integration, diminished interest in the event. In the 1970s African Americans' renewed interest in celebrating their cultural heritage led to the revitalization of the holiday throughout the state. At the end of the decade Representative Al Edwards, a Democrat from Houston, introduced a bill calling for Juneteenth to become a state holiday. The legislature passed the act in 1979, and Governor William P. Clements, Jr., signed it into law. The first state-sponsored Juneteenth celebration took place in 1980. (Texas State Historical Association)

​Juneteenth is also known as: Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Cel-Liberation Day, and Emancipation Day.


 

Juneteenth Today

Juneteenth by stateAfter Texas recognized the date in 1980, many states followed suit. By 2002, eight states officially recognized Juneteenth and four years later 15 states recognized the holiday. By 2008, nearly half of US states observed the holiday as a ceremonial observance. Forty-seven of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have recognized Juneteenth as either a state holiday or ceremonial holiday, a day of observance. The three states that do not recognize Juneteenth are Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

Juneteenth is an opportunity not only to celebrate but also to speak out. Last year, for example, The Root reported that the U.S. Department of State leveraged the holiday for releasing its 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report, with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noting, “Today we are celebrating what’s called ‘Juneteenth’ … But the end of legal slavery in the United States, and in other countries around the world, has not, unfortunately, meant the end of slavery. Today it is estimated as many as 27 million people around the world are victims of modern slavery.” (What is Juneteenth?)

American and Juneteenth Flags​Juneteenth is enjoying a phenomenal growth rate within communities and organizations throughout the country. Institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Henry Ford Museum, and others have begun sponsoring Juneteenth-centered activities. The events of 1865 in Texas are not forgotten, for all of the roots tie back to this fertile soil from which a national day of pride is growing. The future of Juneteenth looks bright as the number of cities and states creating Juneteenth committees continues to increase. Respect and appreciation for all of our differences grow out of exposure and working together. Getting involved and supporting Juneteenth celebrations creates new bonds of friendship and understanding among us. This indeed brightens our future - and that is the Spirit of Juneteenth. (National Registry of Juneteenth Organizations & Supporters)

Resources

eBooks

Book cover of Black Writers, White Publishers. White text reading

Black Writers, White Publishers

"In this book, John K. Young presents the first book-length application of editorial theory to African American literature. Focusing on the manuscripts, drafts, book covers, colophons, and advertisements that trace book production, Young expands upon the concept of socialized authorship and demonstrates how the study of publishing history and practice and African American literary criticism enrich each other."

Book cover of Jazz Country. Black and white images of people dancing.

Jazz Country

The first book to reassess Ralph Ellison after his death and the posthumous publication of Juneteenth, his second novel, Jazz Country: Ralph Ellison in America explores Ellison's writings and views on American culture through the lens of jazz music.

Book cover of Lone Star Pasts. Oil painting of Texas battlefield.

Lone Star Pasts (Elma Dill Russell Spencer Series In the West and Southwest)

The past has long fingers into the present, but they are not just the fingers of fact. How we remember the past is at least as important as the objective facts of that past. The memories used by a people to define itself have to be understood not just as (sometimes) bad history but also as historical artifacts themselves. Texas’ pasts are examined in this groundbreaking volume, featuring chapters by a wide range of scholars.

Chapter 6: "Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory"

Book cover of Myth, Manners, and Memory. Black and white photo of southern belles dressed in ball gown-style dresses holding parasols.

Myth, Manners, & Memory (The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture)

This volume of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture addresses the cultural, social, and intellectual terrain of myth, manners, and historical memory in the American South. Evaluating how a distinct southern identity has been created, recreated, and performed through memories that blur the line between fact and fiction, this volume paints a broad, multihued picture of the region seen through the lenses of belief and cultural practice. The 95 entries here represent a substantial revision and expansion of the material on historical memory and manners in the original edition. They address such matters as myths and memories surrounding the Old South and the Civil War; stereotypes and traditions related to the body, sexuality, gender, and family (such as debutante balls and beauty pageants); institutions and places associated with historical memory (such as cemeteries, monuments, and museums); and specific subjects and objects of myths, including the Confederate flag and Graceland. Together, they offer a compelling portrait of the "southern way of life" as it has been imagined, lived, and contested.

Book cover of Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope. Sepia photograph of Ralph Ellison, an older Black man, holding a book.

Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope

An important new collection of original essays that examine how Ellison's landmark novel, Invisible Man (1952), addresses the social, cultural, political, economic, and racial contradictions of America. Commenting on the significance of Mark Twain's writings, Ralph Ellison wrote that "a novel could be fashioned as a raft of hope, perception and entertainment that might help keep us afloat as we tried to negotiate the snags and whirlpools that mark our nation's vacillating course toward and away from the democratic ideal." Ellison believed it was the contradiction between America's "noble ideals and the actualities of our conduct" that inspired the most profound literature -- "the American novel at its best." Drawing from the fields of literature, politics, law, and history, the contributors make visible the political and ethical terms of Invisible Man, while also illuminating Ellison's understanding of democracy and art. Ellison hoped that his novel, by providing a tragicomic look at American ideals and mores, would make better citizens of his readers. The contributors also explain Ellison's distinctive views on the political tasks and responsibilities of the novelist, an especially relevant topic as contemporary writers continue to confront the American incongruity between democratic faith and practice. Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope uniquely demonstrates why Invisible Man stands as a premier literary meditation on American democracy.

Book cover of South of Tradition. A series of eclectic people standing in front of a large, white house.

South of Tradition: Essays on African American Literature

With characteristic originality and insight, Trudier Harris-Lopez offers a new and challenging approach to the work of African American writers in these twelve previously unpublished essays. Collectively, the essays show the vibrancy of African American literary creation across several decades of the twentieth century. But Harris-Lopez's readings of the various texts deliberately diverge from traditional ways of viewing traditional topics. South of Tradition focuses not only on well-known writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright, but also on up-and-coming writers such as Randall Kenan and less-known writers such as Brent Wade and Henry Dumas. Harris-Lopez addresses themes of sexual and racial identity, reconceptualizations of and transcendence of Christianity, analyses of African American folk and cultural traditions, and issues of racial justice. Many of her subjects argue that geography shapes identity, whether that geography is the European territory many blacks escaped to from the oppressive South, or the South itself, where generations of African Americans have had to come to grips with their relationship to the land and its history. For Harris-Lopez, "south of tradition" refers both to geography and to readings of texts that are not in keeping with expected responses to the works. She explains her point of departure for the essays as "a slant, an angle, or a jolt below the line of what would be considered the norm for usual responses to African American literature." The scope of Harris-Lopez's work is tremendous. From her coverage of noncanonical writers to her analysis of humor in the best-selling The Color Purple, she provides essential material that should inform all future readings of African American literature.

Book cover of To Plead Our Own Cause. Yellow-orange background with a rope.

To Plead Our Own Cause: Personal Stories by Today's Slaves

Boys strapped to carpet looms in India, women trafficked into sex slavery across Europe, children born into bondage in Mauritania, and migrants imprisoned at gunpoint in the United States are just a few of the many forms slavery takes in the twenty-first century. There are twenty-seven million slaves alive today, more than at any point in history, and they are found on every continent in the world except Antarctica. To Plead Our Own Cause contains ninety-five narratives by slaves and former slaves from around the globe. Told in the words of slaves themselves, the narratives movingly and eloquently chronicle the horrors of contemporary slavery, the process of becoming free, and the challenges faced by former slaves as they build a life in freedom. An editors' introduction lays out the historical, economic, and political background to modern slavery, the literary tradition of the slave narrative, and a variety of ways we can all help end slavery today. Halting the contemporary slave trade is one of the great human-rights issues of our time. But just as slavery is not over, neither is the will to achieve freedom, "plead" the cause of liberation, and advocate abolition. Putting the slave's voice back at the heart of the abolitionist movement, To Plead Our Own Cause gives occasion for both action and hope.

Celebrate Juneteenth: Local Events