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Why we celebrate Juneteenth, explained

Fred Shropshire details the history behind the now-federal holiday and why we commemorate it 156 years later.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After four bloody years, the Union defeated the Confederacy to win the Civil War and abolished slavery in April 1865.

 According to US census data from 1860, there were nearly 4 million slaves in the US at that time. Union armies began marching through the southern states freeing thousands of slaves each day.

The news took months to reach Texas -the westernmost state in the Confederacy. On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger and 2-thousand Union troops rode into Galveston, Texas, and told slaves of their freedom.

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“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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves," reads General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865.

Granger’s words spread through Texas, and all at once slaves found out the war was over and they were free. Their joyous, spontaneous celebration gave birth to Juneteenth.

Juneteenth – a combination of the words June and Nineteenth – commemorates when the last enslaved people in the south were finally set free. Many slaves were met with violence or death when they tried to leave, yet the promise of freedom extinguished fear and fueled generations of indestructible people.

Former slaves gathered on Juneteenth the next year, and the year after that, and over the decades Black communities observe the holiday with festive family gatherings, colorful parades, and bountiful bar-b-ques.

Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday in 1980. Since then, 49 states and D.C. have recognized it as a holiday.

Following the summer of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, private companies made Juneteenth a permanent paid holiday for their employees. 

This week, U.S. Congress passed legislation to make it a federal holiday and President Biden signed it into lawon Thursday.

Juneteenth is a celebration of independence; the day all Americans were truly free.

Fred Shropshire: Contact Fred Shropshire at fred@wcnc.com and follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.