Although President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, declaring all slaves as legally free, it actually took years before the news traveled to all parts of the country, writes Henry Lous Gates, Jr. in his piece What Is Juneteenth?. It was also harder to enforce the Executive Order in rebellious Southern states like Texas where there were few Union troops. As a result, African American slaves were still working on plantations as late as 1865, while 250,000 people were still enslaved in Texas.
However, on June 19, 1865, Union soldiers, led by Gen. Gordon Granger, traveled to Galveston, Texas, to announce that the Civil War had ended and all enslaved people were free. Granger issued the call with “General Order No. 3,” which he read to the people of Texas. It read as follows:
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 employer 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.
Newly freed slaves rejoiced in the streets following the announcement of the order. In 1866, freedman organized the first June 19, or Juneteenth, celebrations. Today, it is observed in 31 states as a holiday that celebrates freedom. To commemorate the holiday, people engage in customary activities such as barbecuing, rodeos, fishing, prayer services, and baseball games. The day also serves as a time for reflection and an opportunity for Americans to trace their family roots.