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  •  This June, millions of Americans will celebrate Juneteenth against the backdrop of ongoing efforts to address racial justice, and the one year anniversary of the biggest protests for racial justice in a generation.  As the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States, Juneteenth is a holiday that holds deep meaning and significance for African Americans. Dr. Brenna W. Greer, Associate Professor of History at Wellesley College , Associate Professor of History at Wellesley College, discusses the history of Juneteenthhow the commemoration has developed, and its meaning today within the context of current racial equity issues in America.   



MODERATOR: Good morning and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center briefing “Understanding America: The History and Meaning of Juneteenth.” My name is Jen McAndrew and I am today’s moderator. We are delighted to have Dr. Brenna Greer, associate professor of history at Wellesley College, with us today to discuss the history of Juneteenth, how the commemoration has developed, and its meaning today within the context of current racial equity issues in America.  

Dr. Greer is an award-winning historian of race, gender, and culture in the 20th century United States and an expert on the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the politics of narrating the black freedom struggle. We appreciate Dr. Greer giving her time today for this briefing.  

And now for the ground rules. This briefing is on the record. The views expressed by briefers not affiliated with the Department of State or U.S. Government are their own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government. Participation in Foreign Press Center programming does not imply endorsement, approval, or recommendation of their views. We will post the transcript of this briefing later today on our website. Dr. Greer will give opening remarks and then we will open it up for questions.  

And with that, I will pass it over to Dr. Greer. Over to you.  

MS GREER: Great. Thank you so much. I’m going to (take a) second here and share my screen and hope that that all works out just fine. Okay. All right. Hopefully you’re all seeing that just fine.  

First, thank you to the Foreign Press Center (for inviting me to provide this) briefing. This is really timely given the unanimous vote in the Senate today to move Juneteenth forward as a national holiday. And so my purpose with this briefing is to provide an understanding of the history behind Juneteenth, but also hopefully the greater significance, but I really do encourage questions because there’s so much more that I could say or would want to say in terms of both the history but especially in terms of its relevance historically and to our current moment. But I’ll obviously touch on that.  

So as it probably goes without saying, Juneteenth is the shortening of the word “June” and “nineteenth,” and that refers specifically to the date of June 19th, 1865. And that is when – that is when Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army arrived in Galveston, Texas – June 19th, 1865, again – and declared that all enslaved people in the state of Texas were free. And so to understand the significance of this particular event beyond, obviously, the emancipation of these enslaved people, we need to look more broadly at the Civil War. And so I’m just going to pull up for a moment to give a little bit broader context.  

So at the time that the Civil War started in 1861, there were approximately 182,000 enslaved people in the United States, enslaved people of African descent. And so that was about 12 percent of the population at that point in time. And so the tensions surrounding or around the issue of slavery and whether or not it should continue or be abolished culminated in the outbreak of the Civil War in April of 1861, following the secession of 11 states from the Union to form the Confederate States of America, which was a new state that was dedicated to the institution of slavery. And then in the fall of 1862 then, you had President Abraham Lincoln at the time issue the Emancipation Proclamation. And as you can see here in the highlighted section, the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1st, 1863, freed the enslaved people in all states in rebellion against the Union. So it freed enslaved people in all of the Confederate states. And so beyond (freeing all slaves in the southern states, this order was hugely significant in terms of the war because the Confederacy was greatly weakened without the *labor and *fighting force) of the formerly enslaved.  

That said, (it was not until April of 1865), about two and a half years later after the Emancipation Proclamation, that General Robert L. – Robert E. Lee of the Confederate Army surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. Right, again, on April 9th, 1865. And Lee’s surrender effectively ends the Civil War, but it did not end slavery, and here’s where we start to get to the significance of Juneteenth.  

After the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863 goes into effect, and then even after the Confederacy surrendered in April of 1865, many slaveholders did not emancipate their slaves, and in most cases it was only the arrival or Union troops that actually resulted in freedom for enslaved people. And so desperate to hold on to slavery, many slaveholders in the South during the Confederate states moved further west, and specifically they were moving to the most western slave state of Texas. And so going into the Civil War, Texas had approximately 182,000 slaves. I should say, hearing that in my mind, I realize I made an error earlier when I said that the United States had 182 slaves in 1860. It had 3.5 million slaves. Texas had 182,000 slaves, which was about 7 percent of the U.S. population at that point in time.  

So by war’s end, the number of slaves in Texas had climbed to 250,000, so about a quarter-million, and that was due to this influx of slaveholders trying to outrun the Union Army. So during and after slavery, at least for a brief period, Texas provided refuge to the institution of slavery. Because for one, there were comparatively limited Union troops in Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, but also it’s important to understand that 1865 Texas is a world in which there are no phones, essentially no postal service – at least not rural – very limited telegraphs, right? So this information is not getting to the enslaved population, and certainly slaveholders aren’t informing enslaved people about their emancipation, right? And so even if slaves had also received the information, they probably wouldn’t have been able to spread it around. Most were illiterate and prohibited from moving about.  

So this here is the significance of General Granger’s arrival in Galveston on June 19, 1865. Having taken control of the state, Granger’s first order of business was to issue General Order No. 3, which stated all slaves are free and further said this involves the absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between masters and slaves. Right, so this effected the end of slavery in those Confederate states. And in freeing Texas’s slave population, General Order No. 3 effectively brought the end to U.S. slavery as an institution, and this is an institution that dates back to 1619. And so six months after June 19th, 1865, then you have the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which officially abolishes the institution of slavery in the United States.  

And so then within a half-year, in 1866, on June 19th, 1866, you have the first Juneteenth celebrations where you have freedmen, which is the official designation of formerly enslaved people, freedmen organizing the first Juneteenth celebrations in Texas, right, which makes sense. And they referred to these celebrations as Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, and Freedom Day, and these are all still names that are used to describe Juneteenth and Juneteenth celebrations. And so (in the decades following the Civil War, Juneteenth spread as freedmen migrated first out of Texas) and then out of the South. And by midcentury, Juneteenth celebrations, many of them become bigger, more organized, and sometimes quite fancy with a lot of decoration or pomp and circumstance, again, depending on the community and the location.  

For African Americans in the latter 19th century and the early 20th century, Juneteenth celebrations, beyond just getting together and celebrating emancipation or community, Juneteenth celebrations were often an opportunity to showcase progress among African Americans, and in many cases actually, and perhaps surprisingly, to demonstrate their patriotism because – I think this is the really last point because Juneteenth has never been just about celebrating freedom for black people; it’s also been about black people asserting or making a claim to their freedom and citizenship. And that’s why sometimes you do see these displays of patriotism.  

So, still, well into the 20th century Juneteenth remained largely a Southern holiday, but then as African Americans moved and more about the country in large numbers, so did Juneteenth and the celebrations. And then during the 1960s and ‘70s, black activists also helped to promote and popularize the holiday and its significance. And so now in most major cities in the United States, you will have Juneteenth events of some sort.  

And how Juneteenth is celebrated has varied widely over time and across regions and communities, of course. But generally speaking, from the beginning the observance of Juneteenth has been characterized by food, most notably in the form of barbecue, or a barbecue, music generally accompanied by song and dance. Parades have been very central to Juneteenth from the very early days of the celebration. Play or sport in the form of rodeos, races, fishing. Spirituality is a big part in terms of prayers, even pilgrimages, and hymn singing. And then also, of course, kinship.  

And also I want to point out that in the beginning of the early – or in the early 20th century, beauty contests became a common event at least in Southern celebrations of Juneteenth. And beyond an opportunity to promote the respectability or the beauty of African American women, these have always had the objective of raising money to support the education of black youth, and education is often a central focus of Juneteenth celebrations.  

So now in the 21st century, Juneteenth has expanded beyond parades and festivals and beauty contests to include all manner of activities such as step contests, poetry slams or poetry readings, 5K runs, half marathons, various online and/or educational events, buy black campaigns encouraging people to buy from black businesses, and then various fundraisers as well.  

But last year Juneteenth really took on greater significance within the broader American public, and that was for several reasons. One, then-President Donald Trump’s campaign sparked controversy last spring when they announced plans to hold a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 19th, 2020. And Tulsa, Oklahoma, was the site of a race massacre in 1921, so a lot of people found it objectionable that Trump’s campaign would hold a rally in that location on that date. And so ultimately the Trump campaign did reschedule the event, but the controversy around it did bring attention to this holiday that is largely embraced and celebrated by African Americans. It took recognition of that holiday beyond those circles.  

But also last year, as I’m sure everyone is aware, was a height – or a time of really heightened racial unrest in the United States, and continues to be, right, particularly following the arrest and then police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After this (protests) erupted (in cities) across the nation, but also across the (world). And I think that (certainly had) to do with the video (that captured the final moments) of George Floyd’s (life).  

But I also think we need to put it in the context of COVID-19. (Inaudible) Last year the COVID-19 pandemic, as it has all over the world, has plagued the United States. But in doing so, it has exposed numerous inequities and inequalities in the form of housing, education, income, health care, inequities that have – that are experienced by African Americans in a disproportionate way. And the consequences of that have been really grave, such that while accounting for only 13 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans have accounted for approximately 25 percent of COVID deaths.  

And I would argue that these twin pandemics of police brutality and racial unrest and COVID-19 illuminated both the nature and the extent of systemic racism that African Americans experience. And that gave life to – or new life to and recognition to Juneteenth, which in part I believe explains this revitalized push to make June 19th a national or a federal holiday.  

Last year, you had two senators from Texas and one senator from Massachusetts introduce legislation to make that so, to make June 19th a national holiday. When that didn’t go anywhere, they reintroduced it this year, and as I said, yesterday, there’s been some movement in that the Senate did unanimously pass a bill to make June 19th a federal holiday. And from my experience, I can tell you, just from the amount of requests that I’ve had to talk about Juneteenth, there are more organizations both public and private and corporations that are very interested in this holiday and what it means to African Americans, but what – also what it means in terms of a larger racial landscape in the United States.  

So I’ll stop there and happy to take any questions. Just end my screen.  

MODERATOR: Thank you, Dr. Greer. We did have an advance submitted question, so before we open it up for questions from the attendees, I’ll pose this one to you, which —  

MS GREER: Sure.  

MODERATOR: — you’ve already touched on, but maybe you can expand on more. This question is from Guillermo Fesser of El Intermedio, a television show in Spain, and his question is: “Has the celebration of Juneteenth got a new meaning since the death of George Floyd?”  

MS GREER: Yes, I would argue so. One, I think it’s gotten – again, it’s been elevated in terms of its just kind of public profile. But I think that it’s been – African Americans and their allies are arguing that Juneteenth – it’s not just a holiday and it’s not just a black holiday. It’s an opportunity for Americans to recognize black freedom and to make a commitment to freedom as that relates to American democracy and freedom.  

I will also say that last year – and I think this had everything to do with George Floyd’s murder, and then keeping in mind that there were other incidents of police brutality that brought a lot of attention in 2020 and since – last year, Juneteenth celebrations, even within the midst of the COVID pandemic – more of them featured protest, right? Often it’s parade and festival, but more of them actually became a moment for protest and for protesting, or at least calling for police reform and racial justice. And I think that might be something that you see going forward is a more maybe activist bent to some of these celebrations.  

MODERATOR: Thank you for that, and just a reminder to all of our attendees, if you’d like to ask a question, you can virtually raise your hand or submit your question in the chat box. So we’ll just give it a minute to see if anybody would like to ask a question.  

Maybe as we’re waiting for that, Dr. Greer, you could talk a little bit about what activities are happening on Wellesley’s campus and what you’re seeing across higher education with regard to the holiday.  

MS GREER: Right, no, absolutely (inaudible) Wellesley is out of session. But there are a lot – I have had a lot of requests across different academic institutions to participate in panels that are doing very much what this is doing, bringing in a couple of different speakers to talk about Juneteenth historically, politically, in terms of policy, in terms of art, right. I should have mentioned that art is often very much a part of Juneteenth celebrations.  

One thing that I will add which may speak to questions that some of the audience have but don’t even know they have, perhaps, is that one of the things that is really important, I think, for people to understand is that for many African Americans, they view Juneteenth as their Independence Day, right. And so when you think about Juneteenth in terms of it being – becoming perhaps one of the federal holiday – the eleventh federal holiday, for African Americans, every year we shut down the country in commemoration of July 4th, 1776. But for African Americans or for people of African descent, on July 4th, 1776, the vast majority of them would have been enslaved in the United States, and they were just on the verge of being declared three-fifths a person, and if free, they wouldn’t have been allowed citizenship anyway.  

So for many people, that date in June 19th of 1865 represents a true emancipation followed by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth Amendments that granted African Americans – emancipated them, granted them citizenship, and gave African American men the right to vote, right, so all the tenets of freedom. So again, much more than a black holiday.  

MODERATOR: Thank you. I don’t see any hands raised or questions submitted, so I think with that, we will conclude the briefing, unless we have a last-minute hand raised. But on behalf of the Washington Foreign Press Center and the U.S. Department of State, I do want to thank you, Dr. Greer, for giving your time today to brief the foreign press. We appreciate it, and that will conclude today’s briefing.  

MS GREER: Excellent. Thank you so much.  

MODERATOR: Thank you.  

U.S. Department of State

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