For the first time, this past June 19th the United States officially observed Juneteenth, a day traditionally celebrated by Black Americans as a day of jubilee. On Thursday the 17th, President Biden signed into law a statute creating Juneteenth National Independence Day. Federal workers enjoyed a day off, while activists rejoiced. This federal holiday was long in the making.
But much of the rhetoric about Juneteenth should trouble us. News coverage and corporate messaging would have us believe that Juneteenth commemorates the moment enslaved people in Texas learned they were free: On June 19, 1865 General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and issued General Order No. 3, announcing the liberation of those held in bondage. This simultaneously overstates the effect of the order and understates the contributions and knowledge of Black Americans in the struggle to end slavery.
When Granger arrived in Galveston, many Black Texans already knew that slavery was crumbling. The order effectively announced to enslavers that the United States military would enforce the Emancipation Proclamation in their jurisdiction. Granger’s troops did not just bring news of Confederate surrender, they brought soldiers – including regiments from the U.S. Colored Troops – to enforce it.
Historians have long recognized that enslaved people, whether they were in Mississippi, Kentucky, or Texas, worked to free themselves. They fled across battle lines, abandoned plantations for “contraband” camps, and enlisted in the Union army. They put their bodies on the line in a collective protest of their subjugation, and forced universal freedom onto the national agenda. In many ways, Juneteenth represented their combined efforts.
We also know that enslaved people had well-established lines of communication that transmitted news about the war and policies on emancipation far and wide. One route of the Underground Railroad had run through Texas, confirming the antebellum heritage of this effective communication network. And there is no doubt that news traveled during the war. Slaveholders often shuttled their human property to the relative safety of Texas – located on the Confederate periphery – when they sensed danger. (Henrietta Wood’s enslaver, for example, moved her from Natchez, Mississippi, to Texas as Union forces closed in on his plantation.)
General Order No. 3 may not have shocked Black Texans in the know, but it did establish an important legal boundary between slavery and freedom. It blocked attempts to continue trading in persons as commodities and actively ended bondage. Indeed, in 1868, the Supreme Court of Texas confirmed that Juneteenth was the official end of slavery in the state. In what came to be known as the Emancipation Proclamation Cases, the court settled that it would uphold the terms of slavery-related business only if it occurred prior to Granger’s order. The ruling established that the practice and economy of slavery had continued “both in fact and in law, until by the actual force of the national arms its disruption and overthrow, as a legal institution, was made a reality.” This took place “upon the success of the national forces” “on the 19th day of June, 1865,” when Granger voided all Confederate laws. The court declared, “By force [slavery] was established, by force it was destroyed.”
Granger’s order was thus both a legal and a practical necessity, ending the practice of slavery by law and by force of arms. And that mattered. As a freedman named Miles discovered, white Texans attempted to defy Granger’s order. His enslaver knowingly contracted to sell Miles months after General Order No.3. He backdated the agreement to April 1865 because he “feared that the government of the U.S. States and Soldiers would punish him for the transaction if dated 5 July 1865” – its true date. Miles knew that “under the existing condition of affairs,” he “had a right” to wages – and to his personal freedom. Relying on the date of Granger’s order, the court voided the contract as contrary to law and public policy.
Granger’s order identified the precise day that the legal right to slave ownership ceased to exist in Texas, but it did not stop Texans from attempting to reintroduce slavery, or from refashioning it in new guises. Once the state was readmitted to the Union in 1870, U.S. forces departed. Shortly thereafter, Texas adopted a convict leasing system and enacted Jim Crow laws that ensnared freedpeople and their descendants into new regimes of racial subjugation.
This history complicates the meaning of Juneteenth. Today, understanding the road to emancipation requires recognizing the actions – often painful and dangerous – of enslaved people who used the Civil War to facilitate their own freedom. It also demands that we appreciate that limited actions – like Granger’s order – cannot alone produce deep and lasting social change.
The George Floyd demonstrations that erupted across the nation in the summer of 2020 underscored the tensions inherent in Juneteenth’s history. These protests demanded renewed attention to the violence, social disparities, and unequal treatment that linger within American institutions and society. They mobilized generations of Black anguish and unleashed powerful calls for social change. Without these actions, Juneteenth would have failed to become a holiday, just as it did in 2020.
Laudably, recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday commemorates one of the first collective steps the nation took toward realizing the founding principles of liberty and justice for all. It also has the potential to acknowledge the long freedom struggle. But it will remain symbolic of the nation’s unfulfilled promise of liberty and equality unless it becomes a call to broader action and allyship. In 1865, true liberation required more than the forcible suppression of slavery, and today it needs more than corporate emails and advertisements that perform “wokeness.” Black and all Americans must also enjoy equal citizenship. And it can only be delivered through the comprehensive eradication of slavery’s lasting legacies, including the war on crime, housing discrimination, educational achievement gaps, and pronounced wealth inequality. Until we heed that call, Granger’s order remains unfulfilled.