By: Nick Santangelo

It’s that time of year when Americans celebrate our freedom, but not all Americans became free at the same time. The Founding Fathers declared independence from British rule right here in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, but it would be nearly 90 more years until African Americans gained their own freedom. That’s why today, June 19, many Americans will celebrate Juneteenth.

Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared that all slaves should be freed in 1863, the Thirteenth Amendment made it official in January 1865 and the Civil War ended in April 1865. But, as History Associate Professor Wilbert Jenkins explains, there was much confusion among slaves around the Confederate States of America as to whether or not they were actually free.

It’s almost like a large family reunion, and it’s also like a recasting of the African American experience

Slave owners, eager to continue holding African Americans in bondage, spread misinformation. Union troops would move through the South and tell slaves they were free, but those freed were frequently re-enslaved when the troops moved on to a new area.

“And in Galveston, Texas they were very successful in delaying emancipation information to the slaves,” explains Dr. Jenkins. “So even after the end of the war and the Thirteenth Amendment abolished the institution of slavery, the slaves in that area would not know what was going on.

“Then on June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger in Galveston gave the order that they were emancipated. And so the consequences of that, the slaves in Galveston, the slaves in Texas took June 19, 1865 as the actual date of emancipation.”

But it wouldn’t be until 1980 that Texas became the first state to establish Juneteenth as an official state holiday. Today, all but seven states recognize it in some way. According to Dr. Jenkins, Juneteenth’s spread across the U.S. is due largely to Texas African Americans moving to other parts of the country and bringing the tradition with them. Today, the day is celebrated in ways not unlike how most Americans celebrate the Fourth of July, with firecrackers, barbecues and block parties.

“It’s that, and it's even more than that,” says Dr. Jenkins. “It’s almost like a large family reunion, and it’s also like a recasting of the African American experience in the United States of America, where you go back all the way to the beginning of the experience of African Americans in the United States and you talk of glorifying your ancestors. So it’s very ancestral-focused, but it's also the barbecues, it's the parades. It's the normal celebrations, but it’s even bigger, bigger than that.”

More than 150 years since the first Juneteenth, can increased recognition of the holiday help the country come to terms with the reality that the Civil War was fought to end slavery? Can it help Americans learn more about the nuances of how slaves were actually freed? Dr. Jenkins thinks so.

“Ending slavery was complicated because when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he had hoped that information would quickly spread throughout the South and then what you would have is a speeding up of the process of slaves leaving plantations and leaving farms,” says the professor. “But obviously there was a great deal of confusion going on.”

Union soldiers had to spread the news throughout the South and stick around long enough so that slaves were actually able to leave and not be apprehended by their masters or remnants of the Confederate Army. Juneteenth now recognizes the day when the last of those slaves were set free. Between the holiday’s spread and the presidency of Barack Obama, Dr. Jenkins believes African Americans now feel more like they’re part of the American experience.

And although it’s a steep climb for Juneteenth to become a national holiday like Independence Day, the professor hopes Americans will keep lobbying for it until it happens, just as they once had to with Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

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