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The History and Significance of Juneteenth

  • BY Daisy Talavera
  • June 18, 2021

Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, marks the day in which union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, and announced to all enslaved people of the state that slavery had been abolished. 

Immediately, the formerly enslaved celebrated their freedom and the very next year, the first official Juneteenth celebrations took place on its anniversary in Texas. These celebrations have continued through the decades and as of June 17, 2021, Juneteenth is an officially recognized holiday in the United States. 

The Cal State East Bay News Center recently sat down with Cal State East Bay ethnic studies professor Nicholas Baham and lecturer Steven Cleveland to discuss the cultural and historical significance of Juneteenth. These answers have been edited for brevity and style. 


Why is Juneteenth so significant?

BAHAM: It needs to be recognized that when Lee surrendered, it did not mean that slavery was over. The Emancipation Proclamation, if you read it carefully, declared that all enslaved persons held in confederate territories hostile to the union were free, applying only to states that had seceded from the union and not to border states or southern states that had already come under Union control. It was issued about three years before the Civil War actually ended, but it put a process into place. It meant that once a slave-holding state was taken from the Confederates and back in Union control, all enslaved people in that region were then freed. But what about the states that were not exactly at war with the Union, but still had slaves? Texas was one of these states not really included in the Emancipation Proclamation.

Juneteenth is really a celebration of General Order No. 3 issued by Union General Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865 that proclaimed freedom for enslaved persons in Texas. Texas was not involved in much of the fighting during the Civil War and it became a haven for confederate slave owners. By 1865 there were probably up to a quarter of a million enslaved persons in Texas. Slave owners withheld information about the end of the war so that they could meet the demands of the harvest season, and news of the end of the war traveled slowly. This was the significance of General Order No. 3 by General Gordon Granger.

The importance of this day, for me, has always been not that we’re commemorating these people who didn’t know that slavery and the war were over, but that in the Black community, we recognize that none of us are free unless all of us are free. 

The 13th amendment abolishing slavery did not abolish slavery at all, but June 19 is the closest marker we have of everybody knowing that they are free, even though it’s not perfect. 

CLEVELAND: I have never been a fan of Juneteenth. I always thought it was a little strange that we were celebrating people finding out so late that they were free from slavery. I always found it hard to be excited about that because to me, it really is an example of systemic racism. However, I think in this moment, it really does underscore that in a beautiful way. This year, my understanding and my connection with Juneteenth is different. I had a conversation with Virgil Roberts, who is an entertainment attorney, and he’s very smart and insightful. We talked about the difference in generations, and he said that the Civil Rights Movement was about law and was extremely effective in changing laws and changing the dejure reality of Black folks in America, but what the Black Lives Matter movement is really about is de facto change. It’s about changing the view of Black humanity and allowing the Black community the real freedom they want and fought for that is on paper but doesn’t truly exist. That, to me, is the real importance of Juneteenth. 

Juneteenth is a beautiful example of the fact that just because we got the Emancipation Proclamation, doesn’t mean that freedom came to Black folks who were enslaved. Freedom came some three years after the Emancipation Proclamation came about — freedom came in a delayed way. De facto freedom doesn’t always coincide with dejure freedom and I think that’s an important note to focus on when discussing systemic racism and policing in America. 

How do Black Americans experience Juneteenth?

BAHAM: In a variety of different ways. When I was a kid, it was a parade. It’s much like the way you experience the Fourth of July. We grill, have the family over, party, commemorate together as a community, etc. People memorialize it through monuments and museums as well. 

Texas recognizes it as a holiday because it is part of their culture and history, and we now as a nation are recognizing it federally which is awesome. It should have happened a long time ago, but it’s happening now, so we can really recognize it as a real independence day. 

What are your thoughts on the United States recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday?

CLEVELAND: I think the platform for it has risen. It raises the profile, now everybody knows what Juneteenth is and it allows us to engage in conversations about what will hopefully truly support the liberation of the Black community from systemic racism. All of us as a country should look forward to that. 

How can non-Black Americans honor the day?

CLEVELAND: It is important to honor Black lives. It is important that people are willing to learn and share it with their own community and use the influence they have. The best thing you can do is to go to the place you have agency, and in that place, make change. If you have the capacity to hire Black people, hire Black people. If you have the capacity to amplify the stories you’re hearing, do that. If you’re an administrator at a private school, hire scholars who can help our teachers integrate the story of Juneteenth into our classrooms. Just find ways in the places you have agency to empower, uplift, and place Black people where they can add value. Also, it’s important to be open to hearing from multiple sources, using deductive reasoning, and listening to people who can offer guidance. Being a good ally is all about using your power and agency to empower and help people understand systemic racism as a whole, and to continue to learn and lead others wherever you have agency, whether that is with mom at home, the people at church, a community space where you volunteer, etc., learn it and take it there.

BAHAM: I think people can honor it the same way we should honor Martin Luther King Jr Day. Unfortunately, many people see MLK Day as a three-day weekend, but it should be a day of service. I’d like to see Juneteenth celebrated as a day of service. I like the idea of partying and celebrating, but we have a lot of problems within our communities and there is service that can be done. I also like the idea of a solemn observance. 

What has changed since Juneteenth? What has not? What do we still need to work on?

BAHAM: We’ve gone through Jim Crow and mass incarceration. Jim Crow, legally, is over, but de facto it still exists. Our school systems are still as segregated as they were during Jim Crow and that is a problem. 

The system of mass incarceration has also not changed. In fact, it has become more vicious and we have added more people into the prison system than we had during Jim Crow, so that is problematic. 

Obviously, some things have changed. However, there are still things that were not dealt with with the Civil Rights movement, which ended legal segregation, including de facto segregation and mass incarceration like I mentioned — those remain. 

I think as long as we have a system of mass incarceration and we understand that imprisonment is slavery, then we need to be very measured on assessing how much progress we have really made. 

What changes do you think still need to be made?

CLEVELAND: It is important to listen to Black people if you want to serve them better. Allow yourself to be educated and listen to what they say they want to be prioritized and uplifted. There has to be an embracing of service. As educators, as staff members here to serve our population of students, it’s important to be very clear about what they need from us and to ask our Black students directly how they feel, and to simply listen. We need to learn how to listen, how to serve our communities better, how to use education as a tool, and use this opportunity to truly improve our communities and bring about real freedom.