Juneteenth and Beyond: African American Emancipation Celebrations Since 1808

June 17, 2019

Celebrants outfitted in Union uniforms and period dress assemble at the All Wars
Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors in Philadelphia for a 2006 Juneteenth event. Photo by Laura Blanchard, via Flickr, under CC BY 2.0.

Freedom celebrations are essential to understanding the history, culture, and politics of African Americans. Emancipations from slavery varied over time and place in North America, beginning with the colonists’ quest for independence from England, the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, military orders during the Civil War, a presidential proclamation, and ending finally with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution and a treaty negotiated by the United States with the Cherokee nation. Emancipations were often more so processes than events. Yet African American freedom celebrations have been used consistently for “defining, revising, and retelling” a people’s collective history, in the words of the historian Mitch Kachun.[1]

On March 2, 1807, Congress passed a bill to halt the importation of “slaves” into the United States, effective January 1, 1808. Absalom Jones, a pastor at St. Thomas’s African Episcopal Church in Philadelphia who had purchased his freedom as well as his wife’s, was among the first persons of African descent to call for a special commemoration of the ban. “Let the first of January, the day of the abolition of the slave trade in our country, be set apart every year, as a day of public thanksgiving for that mercy,” he declared.[2] The 1808 ban fueled annual public observances, primarily religious gatherings in northern cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The observances dwindled in the 1820s with the overwhelming realization that the ban, which was not enforced vigorously, did not make serious inroads toward ending slavery.

In 1817 abolitionists and legislators in New York finally succeeded in enacting a gradual abolition law that emancipated slaves born before July 4, 1799, on July 4, 1827. Black leaders in New York debated whether it was appropriate to celebrate a statute that denied immediate freedom to nearly ten thousand people born before July 4, 1799, but they saw it as their responsibility to express gratitude to God and their benefactors for the emancipation of slaves in the state. The leaders chose July 5 as their emancipation day to avoid conflating their celebration with the national July 4 holiday. In a July 5, 1852, speech in Rochester, New York, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” Frederick Douglass declared, “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! . . . This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” According to Douglass, the Fourth of July, more than any other day revealed the gross injustices and cruelties to which blacks were subjected.[3]

During the Civil War, the First Confiscation Act (August 6, 1861); the Second Confiscation Act (July 17, 1862); the emancipation of 3,100 slaves in Washington, D.C. (April 16, 1862); the abolition of slavery in U. S. territories (June 19, 1862); a presidential proclamation (September 22, 1862); and General Order Number 3 (June 19, 1865), which freed blacks in Texas, all chipped away at slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863, did not free anyone, including the more than seven hundred thousand enslaved men, women, and children behind Union lines, but garnered overwhelming attention. The proclamation did heighten expectations for a general emancipation and was the catalyst for numerous celebrations. These celebrations, whether sacred or secular in tone, whether they took place in the North or the South, recognized January 1, 1863, the “Day of Days,” as a promise of freedom for all persons of African descent in the United States. Revelers noted the proclamation’s importance by reading it aloud, marching in parades, firing cannons, ringing bells, singing, and dancing in the streets. Others attended church services and prayed fervently for the fulfillment of the promise of freedom for all.

The Civil War ended formally with the April 9, 1865, surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. The demise of slavery was imminent. On June 19, 1865, enslaved men, women, and children in Texas learned of their emancipation when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and issued General Order Number 3. More than two hundred thousand Texans were affected by the order, which generated joyous responses immediately. More encompassing than General Order Number 3 was the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified on December 6, 1865, which stated that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a convicted crime, shall exist in the United States.

Juneteenth is perhaps the oldest continuous freedom celebration in the United States. Originally Juneteenth celebrations focused on political activities, but over time they became festive events, often including barbeques, music, games, fishing, and rodeos, while still allowing for reflection and remembrance. In 1979 the Texas legislature declared Juneteenth a state holiday. Juneteenth is celebrated throughout the country, largely because Texans have migrated to other states and taken their Juneteenth traditions with them.

Ultimately, when we think about the anniversaries associated with the end of slavery in the United States, it is important to recognize that persons of African descent did not experience slavery uniformly. The same may be said for emancipations and their commemorations. Regardless of the differences in their experiences, African Americans created and continue to create time and space for freedom celebrations to remember and celebrate African American history and the role of African Americans in abolishing slavery. These anniversaries allow celebrants to define, revise, and retell the histories of emancipations, to recognize heroes, and to pass holiday traditions down to younger generations.

Wilma King is Arvarh E. Strickland Professor emerita, University of Missouri, Columbia, where she served as chair of the Department of Black Studies and taught courses in American, African American, and comparative black history. She is the author of Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America (2011, 1995) and The Essence of Liberty: Free Black Women during the Slave Era (2006). She is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of The American Historian. Members of the OAH can download the entire issue, including this article, here. For more on African American history, check out this index from the Journal of American History.

[1] Mitch Kachun, Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808–1915 (2003), 3.

[2] Steven Deyle, “An Ambiguous Legacy: The Closing of the African Slave Trade and America’s Own Middle Passage,” in David T. Gleeson and Simon Lewis, eds., Ambiguous Anniversary: The Bicentennial of the International Slave Trade Bans (2012), 138–39.

[3] Philip S. Foner, ed., Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings (2000), 194.