What is Juneteenth?

By Kristin Dvorak

If you open your phone, you’ll see June 19 marked on your calendar as a U.S. holiday. It’s referred to as Juneteenth, Freedom Day or Jubilee Day. But what exactly are the origins behind this date? Let’s back up.

Starting in the mid-1800s, the U.S. was in turmoil, with slavery as the cause of the conflict. Southern states relied heavily on slave labor for cotton production, and slavery drove their agricultural economy. However, the Northern 20 states plus 5 border states to the South were “free” states, or Union states — largely based on the notion that all people should be free and treated equally. Eleven Southern states disagreed, and believed that slavery should not be abolished. These states formed the Confederate States of America, and the Confederacy seceded from the U.S. in 1860. This rift caused the Civil War, which was fought from April 12, 1861 and ended April 9, 1865.

On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger and 1,800 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, passed by President Abraham Lincoln two years prior. Granger declared an end to slavery in Texas, which held over 250,000 slaves. Upon the announcement, and as Northern troops advanced into the Confederate South, many slaves fled behind Union lines in order to be free. And while freedom for all didn’t happen overnight, Juneteenth became a day in which newly freed black Americans could openly celebrate their independence.

Slavery in America was formally abolished with the ratification of the 13th Amendment eight months after the war’s end, on December 6, 1865.

Juneteenth has grown in popularity but wasn’t formally announced as an official state holiday until 1980 in Texas. Many states followed suit, including Florida in 1991, Oklahoma in 1994 and many others. Wisconsin adopted recognition of Juneteenth in 2009.

In Madison, Juneteenth has been celebrated since 1990. This year, the Juneteenth celebration, held annually by the Kujichagulia Madison Center for Self Determination, will feature virtual programming starting on June 16. This year’s theme is “Black Resilience: Exemplifying Resistance; Past, Present, and Future.” Events will promote a number of political and social matters, and includes youth events, cooking classes and a spoken word/open mic night. The week is capped off by a community celebration and in-person event on June 19 at Penn Park. Find the full schedule and register to attend events at kujimcsd.org.

This article was originally published in June 2020, and was updated in June 2021.

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