What is Juneteenth?

By Joe Zellner 

For many United States (U.S.) citizens, Juneteenth was proclaimed a national holiday during the confounding times of our dealing with and responding to Covid-19. 

“What is Juneteenth?” 

Among many African Americans, and black Americans who trace their ancestry to enslaved ancestors in the U.S., Juneteenth had long been known as the day that the end of slavery was announced in Texas, June 19, 1865 at the end of the Civil War. The Southern military forces under General Robert E. Lee surrendered in April 1865, effectively ending the war, and the formal announcement of that surrender was not made in Texas until June 1865. 

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But to many African Americans outside of the South, that distinction and the significance of that Juneteenth distinction was as unknown to them as it was to the wider, general U.S. population. 

Today, we celebrate and commemorate June 19 as the day slavery ended in the US. We may want to commemorate other prior significant dates to mark the end of legal slavery in the U.S., but I ask us to recognize June 19, 1865. It can be shown that on that date all enslaved people in the U.S. knew about, or perhaps, had the option to know that racial slavery had ended in the U.S.

Ending slavery did not come quickly nor easily for the U.S. And when chattel slavery, birth-right slavery, “one-drop” slavery, was ended in the U.S., race-based slavery still existed in other countries of the world. 

The president of the U.S., Abraham Lincoln, issued an emancipation proclamation in 1862 that specified a limited end of slavery that was to take effect on Jan. 1, 1863. The surrender of the Confederate forces under General Lee in April 1865 signaled the end of major military fighting and presumedly ended slavery in the U.S. The ratification and addition of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in December 1865 declared that slavery was no longer legal in the United States. Most agreeably, all of these events served to end slavery in the U.S. and one might well include the Juneteenth declaration of June 1865. 

Nonetheless, debate still continues and we argue that despite all of these actions and after all of these actions in the U.S., “slavery by another name” continued on in this country.

So, be aware that Juneteenth National Independence Day (June 19) has been further utilized to commemorate and celebrate African American culture in the U.S. 

African Americans have made numerous and commendable contributions to the history and culture of the nation. African Americans, well-known and/or little-known, enslaved and/or free, men, women, non-binary and all contributed to the freedom fight that the nation summarizes and celebrates as Juneteenth. 

Joe Zellner is a longtime town resident, teacher, and student of U.S. history and culture.

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