Today we celebrate Juneteenth – the most popular annual celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. On this day we commemorate June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army arrived in Galveston, Texas with 1,800 Union soldiers and announced that slavery was officially abolished in Texas.
Although Abraham Lincoln had announced the Emancipation Proclamation two and a half years earlier, in 1863, that was only abolition on paper. In reality, the ending of slavery was a much longer process, and freedom for Black people was fought for in subsequent years – not granted by the government overnight. In addition, this Emancipation Proclamation was limited. It declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are and henceforth shall be free.”
During the Civil War, many slaves freed themselves by rebelling and escaping the Southern plantations to fight for the Union Army. Their actions tipped the balance of the war in favor of the North because their escape crippled the Southern economy which relied on their labor, as well as increasing the ranks of the Union Army of the North. An estimated 180,000 escaped slaves joined the Union Army, providing new forces that were decisive in the Northern victory.
While Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery in Texas, it had special significance in the overall ending of slavery in the United States. As the Civil War neared its end and the Union began to capture major Southern cities, many slaveowners from Mississippi and Louisiana forcibly relocated about 150,000 enslaved Black people to Texas to avoid the Union army and maintain slavery for as long as they could. This stronghold of slavery was defeated when the Union Army arrived to take control of the state – enforcing the end of slavery through military occupation.
Because of its place in Texas history, Juneteenth originally was celebrated by Black people in Texas and wasn’t known in other parts of the country. As Black descendants of slaves began migrating from the South to other parts of the country, they brought the tradition with them. Over time, Juneteenth has become more popular throughout the U.S., and is now recognized as a holiday in many states. On June 17, President Biden signed a federal law making Juneteenth a national holiday.
Why has this now become a national holiday? This is undoubtedly due to the anti-racist movements of the last decade and especially the social upsurges throughout the country in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by police. These movements have confronted the deep-seated racism in this society. In response, the celebration of Juneteenth has spread across the country, as it is the only date that acknowledges the end of slavery and how foundational slavery was to American society.
We celebrate Juneteenth this year and the heroic efforts of prior generations to end slavery and confront the racism of this society! But we also know the fight is not over. Biden’s honoring this holiday is a victory of this movement, but a concession that costs the exploiters and oppressors he represents very little. The system of capitalism that created slavery still exists and maintains racism. Slavery itself continues to exist in our prison system, with incarcerated people doing labor for corporations with little or no pay. Ultimately, we will need to organize a fight to end this system and the racism it upholds once and for all.