It was two months after Appomattox, the small town in the U.S. state of Virginia where Confederate General Robert E. Lee handed over his sword in surrender to U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant. But the news of the end of the rebellion had not yet traveled across the states that broke away in 1861.
On June 19, 1865, U.S. General Gordon Granger and his troops came to the coastal Texas town of Galveston. Upon arrival, he announced "General Order No. 3" proclaiming the end of the U.S. Civil War, and with that, the liberation of some 250,000 enslaved Black people across Texas, the last holdout of bondage.
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive [president] of the United States, all slaves are free,” the order read.
The unshackling of Black people had been set forth by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation, but it took until the end of the Confederate States of America for it to fully free those enslaved.
And in December, 1865, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution took effect, sealing permanently the liberation of Black people and all others in bondage.
"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction," it stated.
The Juneteenth celebration began in Texas but spread to other parts of the United States in following years. With the northward migration of Black people from the former slave states in the southern part of the United States, Black communities in many places marked the day with parades and other festivities.
Juneteenth was amplified during the turbulent decades of the 1950s and 1960s as Black Americans demanded and received legal protections in housing, voting, employment, and other important matters. The symbolism of the day of freedom that is Juneteenth held strong.
Texas was the first state to recognize the importance of Juneteenth, first by a 1938 proclamation, them with legislation taking effect on January 1, 1980 marking June 19 as an official state holiday.
Other states also marked Juneteenth in some official capacity over these years, culminating with the June 17, 2021 signing by President Joe Biden of legislation making June 19 a federal holiday.
Juneteenth is the second U.S. government official holiday honoring Black Americans. The first federal holiday honors the January 15 birthday of civil rights champion and martyr Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in reflection of him and the struggles and sacrifices of Black people in the United States.
And for the second U.S. Juneteenth holiday in a row, a woman of color, Kamala Harris, sits as the Vice President of the United States.
While the irons of bondage have been broken for nearly 150 years, minority rights advocates say much still must be done to afford people of color in the United States a full seat at the table. They point to economic and social factors that continue to disadvantage Black people and others.