The Importance of Juneteenth

By Jefferson Brant, Episcopal History Department Instructor

In its most direct sense, “Juneteenth” acknowledges the events of June 19, 1865, when in the midst of the closing days of the Civil War, Major General Gordon Granger and federal troops arrived to take control of Galveston, Texas, and announced news of the Emancipation Proclamation to the local population. In the words of General Granger, “This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property” between former owners and enslaved persons. The date of that announcement was first celebrated the following year by formerly enslaved communities across southeastern Texas as a representation of the broader struggle to abolish slavery that factored so prominently into the history of the United States up to that point in time.

The Emancipation Proclamation that Granger referenced in his 1865 announcement was actually issued by President Abraham Lincoln over two years earlier on January 1, 1863. That proclamation freed enslaved persons in all territories still engaging in insurrection against the United States. It was itself issued nearly two years after the outbreak of hostilities with the seceding southern states as part of an effort by Lincoln to reframe the conflict more directly as a war to abolish slavery. The complete abolition of slavery as a legal institution in all parts of the country took the form of the 13th amendment to the US Constitution. That amendment was ratified by December of 1865, roughly six months after Juneteenth and the end of the Civil War. For many of the residents of Galveston, however, Granger’s public announcement represented the most evident sign of the end of slavery – hence its enduring mark in the public memory of Texas and across the wider country over the years that followed.

The significance of Juneteenth as a celebration of the efforts of so many African American individuals in achieving emancipation and abolition in our country by 1865:

Juneteenth represents not just a celebration of the emancipation of approximately 4,000,000 Black human beings who were in a status of bondage at the outset of the Civil War, but also a recognition of the active efforts of African Americans in bringing about emancipation and abolition. The movement to abolish slavery existed in one form or another since the first recorded entry of enslaved Africans into what is now the United States in 1619. Abolitionism attracted increasing attention and support during the decades immediately prior to the Civil War, in significant part due to the contributions of formerly enslaved African Americans – arguably none more so than Frederick Douglass. Whether through the work of abolitionists like Douglass and others who wrote and spoke extensively on the evils of slavery, armed uprisings such as the Nat Turner Revolt in 1831, or the efforts of countless enslaved individuals attempting to resist or flee slavery over the years, it is clear that abolition was a goal long pursued by so many African Americans long before the first shots of the Civil War were fired in 1861.

Juneteenth should also be seen as an acknowledgment – then and now – of the nearly 200,000 African Americans who enlisted and fought to end slavery and preserve the Union during the Civil War, as well as the approximately 40,000 among that number who lost their lives in doing so. Though those individuals endured many levels of racism and segregation within their own ranks, their contributions to the Union victory and the ultimate success of the abolitionist effort were essential. Black units like the 54th Massachusetts regiment led the way in the fight to capture Charleston in 1863. A force of predominantly African American troops arrived in Jacksonville on February 7, 1864, and engaged in the Battle of Olustee days later. As detailed by the historian Heather Cox Richardson (linked below), that specific engagement would prove to be the most significant battle fought in Florida during the entire war. As a small representation of the countless contributions and acts of individual heroism throughout the conflict, sixteen soldiers of African American descent were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by the end of the conflict.

Indeed, emancipation and abolition were not acts of salvation, but were efforts long sought and fought hard for by literally hundreds of thousands of African Americans by the end of the Civil War. Juneteenth commemorates those accomplishments and sacrifices. 

The significance of Juneteenth as a recognition of the ongoing fight to achieve freedom and equality in our country from 1865 onward:

As much as Juneteenth is a celebration of the end of slavery and those who struggled so hard in the effort, it also serves as an acknowledgment of the ongoing hardships that Black Americans faced during the years and decades that followed the Civil War. That is not to claim that achievements were not made during the immediate post-war period of Reconstruction. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution formally abolished slavery as a property-owning institution in this country, and the 14th and 15th Amendments soon followed that provided standard criteria for citizenship, equality before the law, and an attempt at the expansion of voting rights, among other things. The first Civil Rights Act in our nation’s history was even enacted as part of federal efforts to protect the basic rights of newly recognized citizens. 

However, these successes were often limited, rolled back, or even wholly denied to Black Americans throughout the country by the time Reconstruction ended during the 1870s. The historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. (linked below) is among the many scholars and students of history who have noted that “the shining promise of emancipation” was simply not matched by the realities that Black Americans faced afterward. What followed was a complex story of “Jim Crow” segregation and the widespread obstruction of basic rights and protections that eventually led into the modern Civil Rights Movement by the 1950s and 1960s. 

Civil Rights activist and current congressman John Lewis recently commented that these efforts were merely another wave in the ongoing movement to “make real the Constitution of the United States” for all Americans (interview linked below). As much as Juneteenth was originally a celebration of the efforts of so many African Americans in achieving emancipation from bondage and the abolition of slavery by 1865, it also has grown into an opportunity for all Americans to recognize the continuing labor of generations of Black Americans to fully realize their liberties and rights as equal citizens of our nation. 

A brief note regarding the significance of Juneteenth for our country today, and specifically for our school community at Episcopal:

What began as a local celebration in Texas of a public announcement on June 19, 1865, spread throughout the country over the century that followed. Today, Juneteenth is formally recognized to varying degrees by dozens of states and draws observances nationwide. The efforts of so many Americans to end the terrible institution of slavery are properly recognized, as well as the ongoing efforts of countless Black Americans to truly make good on the ideals of liberty and freedom that are enshrined in both our country’s Constitution and Declaration of Independence. It is work that continues to this day. 

As the great historical scholar W.E.B. Du Bois aptly noted in his 1935 publication, Black Reconstruction, “War and especially civil strife leave terrible wounds. It is the duty of humanity to heal them” (linked below). In reflecting on the status of he and his fellow Black Americans nearly a century ago, Du Bois advanced a call to action that still applies so well to our nation, city, and school community today. As much as an observance of Juneteenth acknowledges the struggles, accomplishments, and hardships of so many Americans over the years in achieving liberty, it also is another opportunity for us all – an opportunity to grapple with the difficulties and complexities of our national history, continually reassess the impact of that history on our modern world, genuinely listen to the perspectives of others, and to endeavor to proceed in a manner that best serves the interest of all humanity. It is a noble charge, and one that drives our current work at Episcopal to continually better serve our students and families, and the wider Jacksonville community more broadly. 

Returning in conclusion to the prescient writing of Du Bois in 1935, “Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?” Finding that truth involves listening and reflecting above all else, and rises above an academic pursuit to a truly human endeavor. It is hard work, but work well worth doing. An appreciation of Juneteenth and all it represents is certainly a great place to start.

Mr. Brant earned his master’s degrees at the University of Memphis and Johns Hopkins University.

Jacksonville area Juneteenth Events

Juneteenth Books, Poetry, and Arts Fair

8th Annual Juneteenth in Jacksonville

References and further reading:

“What is Juneteenth” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:

https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-is-juneteenth/

Brief history of the “Abolitionist Movement”:

https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/abolitionist-movement 

A podcast episode on the constitutional issue of race in American history, featuring interview excerpts with Congressman John Lewis:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/on-leadership/wp/2017/08/21/episode-4-of-the-constitutional-podcast-race/ 

Brief overview of African American soldiers during the Civil War:

https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/blacks-civil-war

Overview of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation:

https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/emancipation-proclamation 

“The 1864 Battle of Olustee and Black Freedom” by Heather Cox Richardson:

https://werehistory.org/olustee-and-black-freedom/ 

Brief excerpts from W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction (1935):

https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/web-dubois-reflects-purpose-history

A brief overview the Reconstruction era (c. 1865-1877):

https://www.neh.gov/news/reconstruction-vs-redemption