Close your eyes. Imagine June 19, 1865, in Texas. You’re enslaved, the property of another with no freedom or equality. Legally, like some four million slaves throughout the United States, you would have been nothing more than a possession lacking civil and human rights afforded to others.
Little did you know that two years earlier, on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation legally liberated you. However, the news took two years to reach the Lone Star State. Was it the country’s rudimentary word-of-mouth communication system? Was it resistance by some Southern states to accept the news?
Whatever the reason, June 19 is a defining moment for the U.S. as the day Texas became the last state to get word that enslaved people were now free. It’s a day many African Americans rejoice as a landmark event embedded in the fabric of U.S. history. It’s a day we honor because what is significant to our friends, neighbors, and loved ones is important to each of us as members of the same family of humanity.
So, as we approach Juneteenth, a blend of June and nineteenth, remember its true meaning as a day of freedom. We might honor it with loved ones by remembering the deceased or those separated from family while enslaved, post the history and meaning of Juneteenth on social media, hold readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, or create our own traditions. However, none of us should forget an event that changed the course of history, even as systems of inequity remain.
A Look Back
Juneteenth 1865 (June 19) is the actual date that a U.S. Army officer, Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, arrived in Galveston, Texas, to declare that all enslaved were free.
The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, “all slaves are free.” This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employed and hired labor.
The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.
By order of Major General Granger
F.W. Emery (signed), Major A.A. Genl.
National Archives Catalog, Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands 1817–1947
The announcement triggered shockwaves of joy, fear, and confusion throughout the area. Some celebrated, some were scared, and large segments of both groups generally had no idea what to make of the situation and their changed lives.
Juneteenth became a state holiday in Texas in 1980, and today, 47 states and the District of Columbia formally recognize the date. Many countries in other parts of the world also celebrate the day to recognize liberation and honor the African American culture and achievements.
General Order No. 3. Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, Texas. June 19, 1865. Obtained from the National Archives Catalog, Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands 1817–1947.
The Florida Experience
For many Floridians, this defining moment is celebrated on May 20, nearly a month earlier than Juneteenth. That’s because, on May 20, 1865, Union Brigadier Gen. Edward M. McCook raised the U.S. flag over the state Capitol and ceremoniously delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, officially freeing all those enslaved in Florida.
In spring 2021, Florida Sen. Randolph Bracy of Orlando filed a bill to make May 20 an official Florida holiday in addition to Juneteenth. The bill, however, died before the regular legislative session ended. Although the holiday is not officially in the books, it remains celebrated by many Floridians, and it is growing as a recognized holiday by Florida cities.
There are many Juneteenth events throughout Pinellas County. We invite you to experience one in the spirit of community connectivity.
Pinellas Community Foundation is a sponsor of the Juneteenth Jubilee, a celebration of Black liberation featuring consciously curated art installations and live performances. The event will take place at The Factory St. Pete, located at 2622 Fairfield Ave., St Petersburg, from 10 p.m.–2 a.m. on Saturday, June 19.
Pay-What-You-Can admission allows everyone to attend regardless of financial circumstances.