Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, is the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery in the United States.
On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the Civil War had ended and that the enslaved were then free -- two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
"The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free."
-- General Order No. 3, by command of Major General Gordon Granger --
Juneteenth is still celebrated some 152 years later. People host cookouts, parades and other gatherings throughout the nation, including at Interior sites dedicated to remembering the struggle against slavery in the United States.
Before the end of the war brought about an end to slavery, almost four-million people were held in bondage as a captive labor force, driving the economy of the South.
Wherever slavery existed, there were efforts to escape. These acts of self-emancipation made the escapees "fugitives" according to laws at the time. The efforts of enslaved Africans to escape bondage became known as The Underground Railroad.
Most people seeking freedom began their journey unaided and many completed their self-emancipation without assistance, but with each decade slavery was legal in the United States, more and more free people tried to help enslaved people to escape.
The Underground Railroad network provided an opportunity for sympathetic white Americans and free blacks to resist slavery and work together on issues of mutual concern. The Underground Railroad also provided tales of guided escapes from the South, rescues of arrested fugitives in the North, complex communication systems, and individual acts of bravery and suffering in the quest for freedom. Telling these stories helps to keep the memory of the Undergound Railroad and the horrors of slavery alive.
Harriet Tubman is well known for her extraordinary work as an abolitionist and as the Underground Railroad's most famous conductor. Her heroic efforts in personally leading more than 300 people out of slavery to freedom in the North defined her as the "Moses of her People."
A decade and a half before slavery was abolished in the United States and a little more than 100 miles from the safety of Pennsylvania, which didn't allow slavery, Harriet Tubman lived on the edge of freedom.
Born Araminta Ross to enslaved parents in 1822, the future humanitarian grew up living in slavery on a plantation in the Dorchester County area. At the age of 13, young “Minty” suffered a severe injury from a blow to the head with a two-pound weight, following her refusal to assist an overseer in the restraint of a runaway slave. The physical repercussions of this injury affected Tubman for the rest of her life.
While still a slave, Araminta adopted the name “Harriet” around the time of her marriage to John Tubman, a free black man, in about 1844. Tubman and her husband continued to live and work in Dorchester County for several years until her escape from slavery in 1849, at the age of 27. She earned the nickname “Moses” for risking her own life to guide other enslaved people -- many of them beloved family and friends she had left behind -- to new lives of freedom. The National Park service commemorates her life and service at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Tubman’s native Dorchester County, Maryland and other locations.
"I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger."
-- Harriet Tubman --
From humble beginnings, Harriet Tubman lived her principles and achieved fame in her lifetime. Her death on March 10, 1913 was reported in the New York Times, followed a year later by a grand commemoration of her life with Booker T. Washington delivering the keynote address. Tubman’s story is a reminder that civil rights can be fragile, but a single person who takes personal action to fight for those rights can be an inspiration.
During the celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 at Fort Scott, Kansas, Captain William D. Mathews, commanding Company D of 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment, gave a speech highlighting the opportunity for African Americans of the day, including former slaves, to fight in the Civil War (1861-1865).
"Today is a day that I always thought would come …Now is our time to strike. Our own exertions and our own muscle must make us men. If we fight we shall be respected. I see that a well-licked man respects the one who thrashes him."
-- Captain William D. Mathews --
The Emancipation Proclamation officially authorized the recruitment of African American soldiers for federal service (although the 1st Kansas Colored had earlier been recruited as a state unit in August 1862). This meant it was now legal for free blacks and former slaves to fight back against the institution of slavery and seek to abolish it through armed resistance. As virtually every Southern slave code prohibited men and women of color from carrying guns, the proclamation had a profound psychological impact across the region.
Read more about African American troops in the Civil War and visit National Park Service battlefields like Fort Scott National Historic Site in Kansas and Petersburg National Battlefield and Richmond National Battlefield Park in Virginia to explore the dramatic stories of these brave soldiers.
From about the 1690s until 1794, both free and enslaved Africans were buried in a 6.6-acre burial ground in Lower Manhattan, outside the boundaries of the settlement of New Amsterdam, later known as New York. Lost to history due to landfill and development, the grounds were rediscovered in 1991 as a consequence of the planned construction of a federal office building.
The African Burial Ground National Monument is the first national monument dedicated to Africans of early New York and Americans of African descent. Among other National Monuments in New York City, it joined the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and Castle Clinton National Monument.
Juneteenth is commemorated at the African Burial Ground National Monument and many other locations across the country. We honor the men and women who fought for their freedom and for the freedom of others -- and we will never forget their noble sacrifices.