Juneteenth is a summer celebration with an unusual backstory. If you are not familiar with its history, consider this: Imagine getting news that instantly changes your life for the better. It makes the future infinitely brighter for your children and their children.
Now, imagine getting that news more than two years late.
That is how it happened for the Texas slave population back in 1865. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves across the divided nation on January 1, 1863. For reasons that historians still debate, the update didn’t reach Texas until June 19, 30 months later.
The newly liberated slaves reacted with joy, celebration and what’s now known as the Scatter. They set off to reconnect with freed family members across the South. Many migrated to northern states seeking a better life. Those who stayed planted new roots as farmers and ranchers.
We can’t know if they speculated on the inexplicable delay. Perhaps they’d heard stories about a messenger sent down from Washington who was murdered in route. The newly freed people might have wondered about rumors that landowners wanted to wrest one more cotton harvest from their slave labor.
The truth is probably a matter of military reality. There were too few federal troops in Texas to enforce the Emancipation Act two years before the Civil War’s end. Still, when Major General Gordon Granger delivered the word in Galveston, a wave of freed men, women and children could finally claim their rightful place in our nation.
Their liberated lives didn’t come easy, but they marked June 19 as a special day of reverence, celebration and community. Juneteenth festivities spread across the country, and Texas made it an official state holiday in 1980. Today, the count stands at 46 out of 50 states.
Just think about what those four states are missing out on. They’re passing up opportunities for public readings of inspiring authors like Maya Angelou and Ralph Ellison. Barbecues, street fairs, rodeos and park parties abound. This celebration of liberation should be observed in every corner of the country.
Someday soon, it will be. Change can be slow, but change for the good is inevitable. Until then, let’s unite our spirits as we observe Juneteenth. Let’s raise our voices in a song of gratitude for news that came better late than never.