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The Legal History of Juneteenth

Hand draw Juneteenth Freedom Day flag in vector format. Flag for poster. Juneteenth symbol background. Concept design
By George Khoury, Esq. on June 19, 2019 3:00 PM

Many people don't know much about the holiday Juneteenth — if they know about it all. In fact, this holiday commemorates one of the more significant events in American history.

Juneteenth is a celebration of the final emancipation of slaves in the United States on June 19, 1865, a little more than one month after the Civil War ended. Despite President Abraham Lincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation 2 1/2 years earlier, slaves were not freed until the war's end.

A Holiday Marking an Event in Texas

The final emancipation occurred on June 19, 1865, in Texas, the most remote of the slave states. Because there had been little large-scale fighting on Texas soil and little presence of Union troops, slavery continued there and U.S. Gen. Gordon Granger came to Galveston to read General Orders No. 3: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free."

The news was slow in making it to many slaves, however — some slaveholders withheld the information until after the harvest season — but as the news spread, celebrations erupted and Juneteenth was born.

Sadly, the news also resulted in many former slaves being killed for trying to leave. One scholar explains that many slaves were forced to stay on after emancipation for as long as six years.

Celebrating Freedom

The first Juneteenth celebrations occurred the following year, on June 19, 1866, mostly as church-based community gatherings in Texas. The observance gradually spread throughout the rest of the South, and by the 21st Century it was observed in most cities. The day is now recognized in 46 states plus the District of Columbia as a holiday or special day of observance.

In 2020, a number of companies, including Nike and Twitter, have made Juneteenth a national holiday for their employees. In addition, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently issued an order making Juneteenth a holiday for state employees. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is giving executive level state employees the day off for Juneteenth this year and has introduced legislation to make Juneteenth a permanent state holiday starting in 2021.

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