Spark Curiosity About the History of Juneteenth

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| By Gale Staff |

Three years into the brutal and bloody Civil War, on January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This landmark declaration stated, “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then, be in rebellion against the United States shall be thenceforward, and forever free.”

The Emancipation Proclamation did not extend justice to those in border states that remained loyal to the Union, or to the Confederate states that came under Union control during the war. However, Lincoln’s decisive action was an important step toward slavery’s eventual abolition nearly 30 months later. When General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to enforce abolition, the resulting jubilation inspired Jubilee Day, more commonly known as Juneteenth.

Since its first celebration in 1865, Juneteenth has been a day of community and commemoration, primarily observed in the black community. That changed, however, when Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 forced a national conversation on racial justice and the legacy of slavery, with one of the results being the federal adoption of Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

Gale In Context: High School can inspire deep discussions and introspection as learners draw from trustworthy, educator-vetted materials about Juneteenth and other topics in African American history. This expansive database consolidates top-of-class materials, spanning primary sources, biographies, critical essays, and periodicals presented without bias and representing diverse perspectives.

With accessibility features designed to meet learners where they are—including a read-aloud feature and texts that span the Lexile levels—all students can kindle their curiosity about the moments in history that paved the way for African Americans’ civil rights.

March 6, 1820: President James Monroe signed the Missouri Compromise, a bipartisan agreement to balance power between slave states and free states. This act admitted the free state of Maine, once part of Massachusetts, and the slave state of Missouri, while establishing a boundary at the 36° 30′ latitude line, north of which slavery was banned.

March 6, 1857: The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott v. Sanford decision ruled that because enslaved persons were not American citizens, they had no right to file a lawsuit. Scott had sued his former enslaver’s widow for holding his family in slavery in Wisconsin, a free state, before moving back to Missouri. Chief Justice Robert B. Taney’s final majority opinion stated that Sanford was within her rights to treat enslaved people as property, per the Fifth Amendment, and that the Missouri Compromise did not grant Congress the power to overrule those property rights in slave states.

April 16, 1862: The District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act freed more than 3,000 enslaved people in the capital, making it the only state that compensated enslavers—up to $300 for each enslaved person they freed. The formerly enslaved persons were also offered $100 to leave America but received no reparations if they stayed. The capital continues to celebrate D.C. Emancipation Day each year on the anniversary.

January 1, 1863: President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, declaring all enslaved people in Confederate-held territory free. Notably, this emancipation did not apply to enslaved people in Union-loyal or Union-held states.

June 19, 1865: Formerly enslaved persons in Galveston, Texas, celebrated the inaugural Juneteenth holiday after receiving word that they were emancipated. General Granger delivered the message, stating, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, ‘all slaves are free.’”

December 6, 1865: The United States ratified the 13th Amendment, declaring slavery unconstitutional and making the Confederate states’ readmittance to the United States contingent on its adoption. Mississippi was the only state readmitted without ratification, which went largely unnoticed until 1995. Legislators then took a symbolic vote that passed unanimously. However, the proper paperwork wasn’t filed for another 20 years, pushing Mississippi’s official 13th Amendment ratification date to February 7, 2013.

April 9, 1866: Drafted by Illinois senator Lyman Trumbull, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 granted full citizenship to “all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed . . . such citizens, of every race and color, without regard to any previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude.” The Act passed through both Congressional houses, but President Andrew Johnson vetoed it. Congress overrode Johnson’s attempt to nix the Act, making it the first legislation to pass despite a presidential veto.

February 3, 1870: The 15th Amendment passed, guaranteeing that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Officials in some areas required prohibitive poll taxes and literacy tests to circumvent the Amendment and deny black men their new Constitutional rights.

1872: A group of black Houston businessmen and ministers purchased 10 acres of land and named it Emancipation Park. It is the oldest park in Texas and continues to serve as a community and recreation center.

1890: The first Jim Crow law passed in Louisiana, requiring that white, black, and “colored” people of mixed African and European descent use separate accommodations. In 1892, a fair-complexioned man of color, Homer Plessy, bought a first-class ticket on a rail car in New Orleans but was told to leave the car for white passengers. After refusing, Plessy was arrested.

May 18, 1896: The Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson and endorsed the doctrine of “separate but equal.” This ruling validated Jim Crow attempts to segregate citizens based on race within public spaces, so long as the facilities offered to all groups were equal—though that was rarely the case. The decision stood until the 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

July 26, 1948: Harry S. Truman shattered the long-standing segregation within the armed forces with Executive Order 9981.

May 17, 1954: In one of the most monumental U.S. Supreme Court cases, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka established that “separate but equal” segregation in public schools violates the 14th Amendment’s guarantee that citizens have equal protection under the law. In this case, Oliver Brown fought to allow his daughter to attend the public white school that was much closer to their home than the school for black students. The Court decided that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” leading to the overturning of Plessy v. Ferguson and desegregating schools.

December 1, 1955: Inspired by 15-year-old Claudette Colvin’s refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks followed suit and ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

September 3, 1957: The Little Rock Nine attempted to enter Central High School, but the National Guard turned them away under Governor Orval Faubus’ orders. The group tried again on September 23 but had to leave mid-school day for their safety. The following day, President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Finally, on September 25, federal troops escorted the Little Rock Nine into the school, and they attended their first full day.

August 28, 1963: During the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech.

July 2, 1964: President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

August 6, 1965: President Johnson enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to address the ongoing racial discrimination affecting voters. This move enfranchised black voters who faced hurdles in the form of racist voting tests designed to prevent African Americans from voting.

August 30, 1967: Thurgood Marshall became the first black man appointed as a Supreme Court Justice. Marshall had been instrumental to ending segregation as one of the lawyers arguing in the Brown v. Board of Education case.

April 11, 1968: In the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, or Fair Housing Act, banned discrimination in renting, purchasing, and financing.

2016: Opal Lee, an 89-year-old grandmother from Fort Worth, began a 1,400-mile walk to Washington, DC, to ask President Obama to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. After loved ones expressed concern, she instead walked 300 miles in 2.5-mile sessions to represent the number of years it took to emancipate the last enslaved persons in Texas. During her travels, she collected more than 1.5 million petition signatures, far exceeding her original goal of 100,000. As of March 2024, Lee, with the help of Habitat for Humanity, is building a home on the land where a racist mob had burned down her home in 1939 when she was only 12 years old.

June 17, 2021: President Biden declared June 19—Juneteenth—a federal holiday. Lee joined him at the White House.

The relentless struggle for civil rights and every individual’s humanity and unalienable right to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” spans nearly two centuries. Too many generations of black Americans lived, fought, and died without seeing the fruits of their labor.

Now it’s our generation’s turn to do our part. As the Grandmother of Juneteenth, Opal Lee, has said, “People at church, at work, wherever you go that aren’t on the same page you’re on, it’s your responsibility to change their mind—and their minds can be changed . . . If people have been taught to hate, they can be taught to love. And if there’s an army of people teaching folks to love, hey, we’re going to solve this problem.”

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