On Thursday, June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed legislation officially establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery. Dubbed Juneteeth, a combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth,” the day was originally celebrated by African Americans in Galveston, Texas, shortly after the Civil War.
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Official news ordering the freeing of slaves had arrived late in the Lone Star state, just two months after the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee and two years after President Abraham Lincoln enacted the Emancipation Proclamation into law on January 1, 1863. While the proclamation had already outlawed slavery, Texas continued its use of slaves and, due to its remoteness, was largely shielded from the presence Union troops stationed throughout the South who were tasked with enforcing the new mandate.
On June 19, 1865, Union army Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Texas with federal troops in tow to deliver the announcement titled General Order No. 3. The order stated that “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” Those words would release approximately a quarter of a million Blacks living in the state.
The following year, freedmen gathered to celebrate the anniversary of Granger’s announcement. Also known as Jubilee Day and Emancipation Day, the holiday continued to be celebrated largely in Texas by African Americans, eventually spreading as Blacks migrated to new areas. Many observed the day with joyful gatherings, cookouts, parties and other festivities. On Jan. 1, 1980, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday, and a handful of other states would follow in later years.
Juneteenth marks the 11th federal holiday established by the U.S. government. The last was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in 1983.
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