A brief look at a holiday commemorating struggle for Black freedom

What is Juneteenth?

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that on January 1, 1863, all Black slaves in the southern Confederacy would be free. Though it freed a number of people from slavery, and provided the United States with a broader goal of freeing those who were enslaved, many Black Americans remained under Confederate control and in slavery.

Texas was one of those states. More than two years later, on June 19, 1865 – after Lincoln’s assassination and General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox – Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, and read a proclamation that the people of Texas were now free.

This new day – June 19th – became known as Juneteenth, a symbol of hard-fought freedom.

>>Learn more about the history of Juneteenth from Julie Saville, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Chicago.

What did the proclamation in Galveston Bay say?

The proclamation began, “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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer."

Where is Juneteenth celebrated?

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee gives a speech in support of making Juneteenth a national holiday, June 19, 2003.

One year after the proclamation was read on June 19, 1865, the first “Jubilee Day” was held to commemorate the day. Texas first officially recognized Juneteenth more than a hundred and ten years later, in 1980.

After Texas officially recognized the holiday in 1980, it was more than 10 years before a second state to recognize it. Now, all but three states recognize Juneteenth in some way, with New Hampshire making Juneteenth a holiday just last year.

Illinois first officially recognized Juneteenth National Freedom Day in 2003 “to commemorate the abolition of slavery throughout the United States and its territories in 1865.” The 2003 law urged the people of Illinois “to reflect on the suffering endured by early African-Americans and to celebrate the unique freedom and equality enjoyed by all State citizens today.”

Has Juneteenth become more widely celebrated lately?

Juneteenth was already becoming more widely celebrated when the brutal killing of George Floyd on May 25 sparked outrage and a national conversation about systemic injustice facing the Black community, but the growing awareness of and resistance to this injustice imbued commemorating Juneteenth with greater urgency and import.

How are people taking note of Juneteenth this year in Chicago?

This week, Governor JB Pritzker announced that all flags would be lowered to half-staff to commemorate the day. A number of Juneteenth celebrations are planned throughout Chicago.  For more information on public events, including a virtual event organized by Arts + Public Life at the University of Chicago, click here.   

>>Watch Arts + Public Life on Facebook Live featuring Liberatory Practices by artists Sadie Woods and Seed Lynn