President Joe Biden declared Juneteenth the newest federal holiday last year. On this day, June 19, 1865, the last enslaved people in America were finally freed.
According to renowned Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., declaring the day a holiday has been a long time coming.
For a long time, Juneteenth was not recognized as a national Black holiday, according to Gates. “However, Black people in Texas kept it alive. That’s what makes it so appealing. Our people have been yearning for the holidays. Traditions are appealing to me. I’m looking for stories about Black history.”
Gates works as a professor and the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research during the day. By night, he’s the host and producer of the PBS genealogy show “Finding Your Roots,” as well as a slew of Black history documentaries.
He outlined the three most important historical moments in the abolition of slavery: “The Emancipation Proclamation, signed on January 1, 1863, Juneteenth, June 19, 1865, and finally, the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865 — which finally and ultimately abolished the institution of slavery,” Gates said.
When asked why the name Juneteenth became popular, he stated, “One of the reasons I believe Juneteenth endured is that we are all captivated by the poetic brilliance of the name, ‘Juneteenth.’ What better name could there be for June 19? It’s great, and it’s appealing, you know? It’s memorable.”
According to Gates, there is also some fiction surrounding that day in 1865, when Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3 to free the enslaved Black people of Galveston, Texas, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
“We were all taught that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, right? The problem is that the Emancipation Proclamation did not have the authority to free anyone “he said. “It only applied to enslaved people in the Confederacy, and it could only be enforced if Union troops had captured territory in the Confederacy’s South.”
According to Gates, only 500,000 of the 3.9 million enslaved men and women were freed as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation. He explained that the Civil War did not end when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, which is why it took so long to spread the word.
“So, on June 2, Texas finally surrenders to the Union. Gordon Granger arrives and issues the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19 in Galveston. Because the Union Army now controls the territory. So there you have it, the real story “Gates stated.
He explained why many historians believe that enslaved people in Texas were aware of the Emancipation Proclamation before it was issued.
“One reason is the proverbial “grapevine.” So there was this miraculous way for enslaved people to communicate with one another from plantation to plantation and from state to state “Gates stated. “But the second factor is that because Texas was removed from the main action of the Civil War, many slaveholders moved to Texas for safety. And they took their enslaved people with them.”
Gates also emphasized the significance of the period following Juneteenth, which saw the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, as well as the Reconstruction Acts.
“This was the first gathering of Black power,” Gates explained. “In the summer of 1867, 80% of all eligible Black men who had previously been enslaved in the South registered to vote. And they actually voted in 1868. Ulysses S. Grant won the presidency, so Black men could legitimately claim to have elected a president of the United States.”
Back in Galveston, the formerly enslaved began celebrating their freedom in 1866. According to Gates, the details of Juneteenth are less important to him than the power of its message.
“Juneteenth is one of the first holidays that Black people created on their own. And of the holidays that they created in slavery times, Juneteenth is the one that survived and is now a national holiday,” he said. “For a country built upon the love of freedom, any manifestation of the enjoyment of freedom should be celebrated by all our country. Let’s hope for that day.”