A celebration that has persisted for over a century receives its first official recognition on June 7, 1979, as the Texas Legislature passes a bill declaring Juneteenth a state holiday. The annual June 19 celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation—not the announcement itself, but the arrival of the news of the proclamation in Texas—is now officially observed in almost all 50 states.
President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation officially freed the enslaved peoples of the rebellious Southern states on New Year’s Day of 1863, but the order only applied to territories currently held by the Confederacy. Southerners did not recognize Lincoln’s authority, and in many cases slaveowners and whites simply withheld the news from enslaved people.
The wait was especially long in Texas, where news of slavery’s demise did not arrive until two months after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox ended the Civil War. On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and proclaimed the news to the enslaved people there.
The day instantly became an important one to the African American citizens of Texas, who held annual celebrations and even made pilgrimages to Galveston each Juneteenth.
In 1872, a group of Black ministers and businessmen purchased 10 acres of land in Houston for the occasion, naming it Emancipation Park. Black communities across the nation continued to celebrate Juneteenth for the next century.
The holiday received renewed interest with the rise of the civil rights Movement in the 1960s, particularly when Rev. Ralph Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference proclaimed Juneteenth “Solidarity Day” as part of his 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.
Another civil rights leader, the recently-elected State Representative Al Edwards of Houston, introduced the bill making Juneteenth a paid holiday in the state of Texas. In the following decades, most of the country either made Juneteenth a holiday or declared it would officially observe the occasion, and parades and public celebrations have attracted larger and larger crowds.
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On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed