By Patricia S. Daniels
Published June 17, 2022
On June 17, 2021, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, making June 19 a national holiday. Juneteenth is not a new celebration; its roots go back more than a century to the end of the Civil War, when enslaved Americans in Texas learned that they were free. But Juneteenth is just one part of a story of how slavery came to an end in the United States.
Slavery and the Middle Passage
The Atlantic Slave Trade had existed for nearly a century before slavery came to the North American colonies. In 1619 the practice in the United States began with a single Portuguese slave ship in 1619. It had been intercepted by the English privateer White Lion and sailed into Point Comfort (now the Fort Monroe National Monument), near the young settlement of Jamestown in the Virginia colony.
According to colonist John Rolfe, its captain brought “20 and odd” Africans, “w[hich] the Governo[r] and Cape Merchant bought for victual[s].” This purchase of human beings set the course for the forced migration of hundreds of thousands of Africans to the future United States and other destinations, in what was called the Middle Passage.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, European merchants shipped some 12.5 million captives from ports along the west coast of Africa to the Americas, where they were forced into labor from Brazil to the Caribbean to the North American colonies. In North America, the preponderance of enslaved Africans labored in the South as personal servants, general laborers, and field hands on tobacco, sugar, cotton, and rice plantations. But slavery was part of colonial life in the North as well. In 1740, one-fifth of New York City’s population was enslaved.
In 1808, Congress prohibited the importation of enslaved people but allowed the domestic slave trade to continue and grow. At this time, the recent invention of the cotton gin transformed the southern economy by making cotton a more profitable crop—one dependent on enslaved labor. The resulting second Middle Passage occurred as roughly 650,000 people of African descent in the United States were purchased and sold to the Deep South to work those cotton fields, tearing apart Black families. In the 1830s alone, for example, white enslavers and slave traders removed one of every four enslaved persons from Virginia.
Fights for freedom
For as long as slavery existed in the colonies and then the new nation, there had been people fighting against it. More than 20 Black men revolted in New York City in 1712. In September 1739, the Stono Rebellion—the largest slave revolt in Britain’s 13 colonies—broke out in South Carolina.
After the War for Independence, uprisings continued to break out in states where slavery was legal. Gabriel Prosser led a rebellion in Virginia in 1800. Inspired by the Haitian Revolution, more than 500 enslaved people marched across Louisiana in the German Coast Uprising of 1811. More followed: Denmark Vesey in 1822, Nat Turner in 1831, and Harper’s Ferry in 1859.
Fighting on the legal front also progressed in the 19th century. The abolition movement grew, led by free Black Americans like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, William Still, and Sojourner Truth. More and more states abolished slavery, while attempts to admit new slave states to the Union were met with contention.
The enslavement of people became an increasingly bitter issue between the free and slave states, leading in time to the consequential shots fired at Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina, in 1861. Though the abolition of slavery was not the Union’s central goal at the start of the war, it became one, when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
Freedom and the first Juneteenth
The Emancipation Proclamation did not free all enslaved people, only the ones who were in states “in rebellion against the United States.” In the border states Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, enslaving people was still legal. The Emancipation Proclamation was an important first step to ending slavery to be sure, but it was not the full measure.
When the Civil War ended in April 1865, not all enslaved individuals in the rebellious states knew they were free. Communication was slow, and those who lived the farthest from Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia (where Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant), were some of the last to find out. On June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and his federal troops arrived in the far-flung outpost of Galveston, Texas, to deliver the news. Granger traveled through town reading the order:
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, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.
By June the following year, slavery had come to an end in the United States. In December 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified: It simply states: “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.”
In June 1865, African Americans in Texas celebrated the first “Jubilee Day” on Juneteenth—short for June Nineteenth. The day soon became associated with barbecues, music, prayer services, and family gatherings, and as African Americans migrated to other parts of the country, so, too, did the Juneteenth tradition. It is the United States’ oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery.
The declaration of Juneteenth as a national holiday is another step in the long fight to fight against the racism imbued from slavery—as long as the nation remembers that Juneteenth is more than just a celebration. It is a signpost to mark 400 years of history that needs to be uncovered, remembered and accounted for.
Portions of this work have previously appeared in Atlas of American History. Copyright © 2021, National Geographic Partners, LLC.
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