Juneteenth - the day slaves in Texas were finally freed, years after the proclamation was made

Juneteenth Statue
Posted at 5:54 PM, Jun 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-19 10:41:19-04

Juneteenth is a holiday celebrated across the U.S. It is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.

On this day in 1865, the last enslaved African Americans were set free in Texas. They were freed over two years after Abraham Lincoln had made his proclamation. This event marked Juneteenth, or Freedom Day.

Centuries ago, America's first African slaves arrived by boat in Virginia. For hundreds of years, they were beaten, sold and forced into servitude.

"Blacks were inferior, and this whole dismantling of the Africans humanity, which made them relegated to property, therefore they were able to sustain the system of slavery that became the economic underpinning of the United States,” Rev. Philemon Brown, Executive Board member of Community Hands of Central Texas, said.

Brown said slaves worked in the fields producing tobacco and picking cotton.

"You have people working from sun up to sun down, walking back and forth, not taking breaks, getting cotton. They are selling the cotton and they are not reaping one dime of benefit," Brown said.

But by the 19th century, the existence of slavery came into question as Abraham Lincoln became president. In 1862, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

The order sought to abolish slavery, but enforcing the law would divide the nation. In the south, slave owners refused to free their slaves, igniting a civil war.

"The Civil War was about slavery...people will say it was about states rights. Well, states' right was about the right to own slaves," Brown said. Several southern states - including Texas - formed the Confederate States of America, waging war with northern states.

By the end of it, the Confederate States surrendered, ending the war in spring of 1865. On June 19, Union Army General Gordon Granger traveled to Galveston and proclaimed all slaves were free - but this was nearly two and a half years after Lincoln made the proclamation. "The people in Texas are informed, that in accordance with a proclamation executive of the US, all slaves are free," Brown said. Celebrations marking Juneteenth date back to 1866. Nearly 155 years later, New York State is allowing state employees to take the day as a paid holiday.

In Virginia, once the capital of the Confederacy, the governor is making Juneteenth a state holiday.