TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Exactly 155 years ago Saturday, Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army arrived in Galveston, Texas and informed slaves they were free.
The day would go down in history as Juneteenth, “the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States,” according to Juneteenth.com.
The holiday, celebrated annually on June 19, is a portmanteau that gets its name from the combination of June and Nineteen.
On Wednesday, the House voted 415-14 to make Juneteenth federal holiday. President Joe Biden signed the bill into law Thursday. The day will be known as Juneteenth National Independence Day.
What is Juneteenth?
According to History.com, on June 19, 1865, Granger and roughly 2,000 bluecoats landed in Galveston, Texas to inform enslaved African Americans that the Civil War had ended and they were free.
Granger read General Order No. 3 to the people of Galveston. It stated:
“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.”
The news came more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln had already died and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was close to being ratified.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in 1863, it was not enforced in Texas until the Union took control of the state. Slave owners in some states had migrated west to Texas, a Confederate stronghold, and brought thousands of slaves with them. Historians say there were no major Civil War battles in Texas, therefore slaves were unable to seek shelter behind Union lines. They claim many Texas slaveowners hid news of the proclamation from those they enslaved.
Texas remained a Confederate stronghold until General Robert E. Lee eventually surrendered to the Union Army on April 9, 1865. Various Confederate armies and militia forces surrendered between April 16 and June 28, 1865.
How has Juneteenth been celebrated?
In 1866, freed slaves in Texas organized the first annual celebration of “Jubilee Day” on June 19.
The celebration included prayer services and church gatherings, and over time, it would evolve.
African-American historian and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes that Juneteenth became: “an occasion for gathering lost family members, measuring progress against freedom and inculcating rising generations with the values of self-improvement and racial uplift. This was accomplished through readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, religious sermons and spirituals, the preservation of slave food delicacies (always at the center: the almighty barbecue pit), as well as the incorporation of new games and traditions, from baseball to rodeos and, later, stock car races and overhead flights.”
Over the next century, the holiday would spread across the South and the rest of the United States. But for years, the holiday went largely unnoticed in the majority of the country, and was rarely mentioned in school curricula.
“This monumental event remains largely unknown to most Americans,” the National Museum of African American History & Culture noted.
Is this a paid holiday?
Now that the bill has become law, Juneteenth is the 12th federal holiday, meaning it has been given the same status as other federal holidays, such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
But is it a paid holiday? That depends on your employer.
Approximately 2 million federal employees will get a paid day off, but those working in state and local governments and in the private sector may not.
A number of companies such as Nike, JCPenney and Target say they will grant employees a paid day off. According to NPR, Target stores will stay open, but employees working on Juneteenth will get time and a half pay.