What is the significance of Juneteenth and why is it significant?

At the end of the Civil War, though slavery was technically illegal in all states, it still persisted in the last bastions of the Confederacy. This was the case when Union General Gordon Granger marched his troops into Galveston, Texas on June 19th and announced that all enslaved people there were officially free. Karlos K. Hill and Soraya Field Fiorio dig into the history of Juneteenth.

Lesson by Karlos K. Hill and Soraya Field Fiorio, directed by Rémi Cans, Atypicalist.

One day, while hiding in the kitchen, Charlotte Brooks overheard a life-changing secret. At the age of 17, she’d been separated from her family and taken to William Neyland’s Texas Plantation. There, she was made to do housework at the violent whims of her enslavers. On that fateful day, she learned that slavery had recently been abolished, but Neyland conspired to keep this a secret from those he enslaved. Hearing this, Brooks stepped out of her hiding spot, proclaimed her freedom, spread the news throughout the plantation, and ran.

That night, she returned for her daughter, Tempie. And before Neyland’s spiteful bullets could find them, they were gone for good. For more than two centuries, slavery defined what would become the United States— from its past as the 13 British colonies to its growth as an independent country. Slavery fueled its cotton industry and made it a leading economic power. 10 of the first 12 presidents enslaved people. And when US chattel slavery finally ended, it was a long and uneven process. Enslaved people resisted from the beginning— by escaping, breaking tools, staging rebellions, and more.

During the American Revolution, Vermont and Massachusetts abolished slavery while several states took steps towards gradual abolition. In 1808, federal law banned the import of enslaved African people, but it allowed the slave trade to continue domestically. Approximately 4 million people were enslaved in the US when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860. Lincoln opposed slavery, and though he had no plans to outlaw it, his election caused panic in Southern states, which began withdrawing from the Union. they vowed to uphold slavery and formed the Confederacy, triggering the start of the American Civil War.

A year into the conflict, Lincoln abolished slavery in Washington, D.C., legally freeing more than 3,000 people. And five months later, he announced the Emancipation Proclamation. It promised freedom to the 3.5 million people enslaved in Confederate states. But it would only be fulfilled if the rebelling states didn’t rejoin the Union by January 1st, 1863. And it bore no mention of the roughly 500,000 people in bondage in the border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri that hadn’t seceded.

When the Confederacy refused to surrender, Union soldiers began announcing emancipation. But many Southern areas remained under Confederate control, making it impossible to actually implement abolition throughout the South. The war raged on for two more years, and on January 31st, 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment. It promised to end slavery throughout the US— except as punishment for a crime. But to go into effect, 27 states would have to ratify it first. Meanwhile, the Civil War virtually ended with the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on April 9th, 1865. But although slavery was technically illegal in all Southern states, it still persisted in the last bastions of the Confederacy.

There, enslavers like Neyland continued to evade abolition until forced. This was also the case when Union General Gordon Granger marched his troops into Galveston, Texas, on June 19th and announced that all enslaved people there were officially free— and had been for more than two years. Still, at this point, people remained legally enslaved in the border states. It wasn’t until more than five months later, on December 6th, 1865, that the 13th Amendment was finally ratified. This formally ended chattel slavery in the US. Because official emancipation was a staggered process, people in different places commemorated it on different dates.

Those in Galveston, Texas, began celebrating “Juneteenth”— a combination of “June” and “nineteenth”— on the very first anniversary of General Granger’s announcement. Over time, smaller Juneteenth gatherings gave way to large parades. And the tradition eventually became the most widespread of emancipation celebrations. But, while chattel slavery had officially ended, racial inequality, oppression, and terror had not. Celebrating emancipation was itself an act of continued resistance. And it wasn’t until 2021 that Juneteenth became a federal holiday.

Today, Juneteenth holds profound significance as a celebration of the demise of slavery, the righteous pursuit of true freedom for all, and a continued pledge to remember the past and dream the future.

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