On December 31, 1862, enslaved and free African Americans gathered in churches and private homes all across the country awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect. On this first “Watch Night,” at the stroke of midnight, all enslaved people in Confederate States were declared legally free.
Union soldiers, many of whom were black, marched onto plantations and across cities in the south reading small copies of the Emancipation Proclamation and spreading the news of freedom in the Confederate States.
Even though the Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved people, it wasn’t until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in January, 1865, that slavery was abolished forever in the United States.
Also, not everyone in Confederate territory was immediately freed by the Proclamation. It was impossible for the Federal Government to implement it in places still under Confederate control. As a result, slaves in the westernmost Confederate state of Texas were not aware that they were freed for two years after the Proclamation.
Finally, on June 19, 1865, two months after the end of the Civil War, 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas. Their commander, General Gordon Granger read General Order 3 as follows:
“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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
With that, more than 250,000 enslaved black people were freed by executive decree, and the day became known as “Juneteenth” by the newly freed people in Texas. The celebrations that followed began a tradition that has lasted for one hundred and fifty five years and today is celebrated across America.
During the 20 years of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, formerly enslaved people immediately sought to reunify families, establish schools, run for political office, push radical legislation and even sue slaveholders for compensation. Given the 200 years of enslavement, such changes were nothing short of amazing. Not even a generation out of slavery, African Americans were inspired and empowered to transform their lives and their country.
Juneteenth marks our country’s second independence day. Although it has long celebrated in the African American community, this monumental event has remained largely unknown to most Americans. Until today.
June 19 has been designated a legal holiday in many states, including Virginia. And just today, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) introduced a bill that would make Juneteenth a nationally recognized holiday. The bill H.R. 7232, or the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, is co-sponsored by more than 80 other members of Congress, including Rep. Elaine Luria.
“Juneteenth celebrates African American freedom while encouraging self-development and respect for all cultures,” Lee said in a statement released Thursday. “But it must always serve as a reminder to all that liberty and freedom are the precious birthright of all Americans which must be jealously guarded and preserved for future generations.”