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What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is a celebration and reaffirmation of African American culture, freedom, and hope. This celebration marks the day that enslaved Texans learned that they’d been freed, over two months after Robert E. Lee‘s surrender ended the Civil War, and almost three years after President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation.

The Juneteenth flag commemorates the day that slavery ended in the US.

Despite the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, the end of slavery did not finally come to Galveston, TX until some 2,000 Union troops arrived on June 19, 1865. On that historic day, Union Major-General Gordon Granger announced that the more than 250,000 African American people still enslaved in the state of Texas were free by executive decree. Soon thereafter, this day came to be known as "Juneteenth" by the newly freed people of Texas.

Interestingly, we even have a local connection to the origin of Juneteenth here in Western NY. Gen. Gordon Granger, the Union Major-General who issued the decree in Galveston, was born in the hamlet of Joy, NY. Today this hamlet is known as Sodus.

Know Your History

Slavery did not officially end in the entirety of the United States until December 13, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was adopted and formally abolished slavery.

America After Civil War

The observation of Juneteenth has a complicated history, and this day of celebration and reaffirmation of African American culture almost did not become a cultural observance. Learn more in our second day highlighting the history of Juneteenth.

To understand why it is so incredible that Juneteenth is still celebrated today, it is necessary to understand the conditions that formerly enslaved people, sometimes referred to as “freedmen” and “freedwomen,” found themselves in after the Civil War.

By the end of the Civil War, slavery had already dug deep roots into our nation’s cultural and political landscape, forming the beginnings of the systemic racism that we still face today as a nation. This meant that early efforts to grant equal rights and aid to formerly enslaved and free African Americans were often insufficient or poorly executed.

Once emancipated, freedmen and freedwomen had to build new lives starting with very little. Years of struggle and perseverance ultimately led to freed African Americans finding their own identity and place in our nation, developing their own culture and a sense of community that allowed them to move beyond their enslavement. However, this has been a long and difficult road, and one that has been filled with unfair treatment, even to this day.

Fourth of July celebrations of independence went on for 89 years before the United States abolished slavery.

Unequal Treatment

Juneteenth has often been said to commemorate our country’s second independence day. Fourth of July celebrations of independence went on for 89 years before the United States abolished slavery. For the enslaved community, this inconsistency only served to highlight their lack of power and opportunity in America, as well as their lacking representation in government. In fact, African Americans were not granted citizenship until the 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was an American social reformer, writer, and statesman.

After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the Northern movement to end slavery in the United States.

Frederick Douglass acknowledged this failing of American values during his biting July 5 speech in 1852:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour…”

This famous speech was delivered right here in Rochester, NY, at the Corinthian Hall, which was located where the parking lot adjacent to the downtown Holiday Inn stands today.

Learn more about Juneteenth's early celebrations >