When Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, freedom was promised to slaves throughout all states, including those in the Confederacy. As Union troops took control of southern states, slaves were freed.

As slaves in these areas were freed, celebrations were held on different dates. Since Texas was the most distant of the southern states, it was the last state where slaves were freed. In some cases, slaves were not aware that they had a right to freedom.

When Major General Granger arrived in Galveston Texas on June 19, 1865, slaves learned of their freedom. While there were still areas where slaves were still in bondage, June 19 became a popular choice for celebrating freedom in most areas of the country.

Early celebrations were often political rallies as freed slaves (men only) were given the right to vote. When southern states began to disenfranchise African Americans, the June 19 celebrations declined in the south but became more prominent in northern urban areas as African Americans migrated north.

The Civil Rights movement ironically saw a decline in June 19th celebrations as the focus shifted to expansions of freedom and rights. Over time, June 19th celebrations reappeared as a way to call attention to issues affecting African Americans.

Opal Lee, an African American retired school teacher and activist became a force behind making June 19th a federal holiday. When she was 12 years old, 500 white rioters vandalized and burned her home. The date was June 19, 1939. This was the catalyst that propelled her advocate for June 19 becoming a day of justice, not just a celebration.

She campaigned to make June 19 (now called Juneteenth) a national holiday. She led 2.5-mile walks each year as a reminder of how long it took from the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation for the news to reach Texas. At the age of 89, she undertook a walk from Fort Worth, TX to Washington DC. It took over a year to complete the walk.

While Juneteenth was not recognized as a federal holiday during the Obama presidency, it did receive that recognition in June 2021. Opal Lee, then 94, was the honored guest at the signing ceremony. Opal Lee is now considered the grandmother of Juneteenth. In 2022, South Dakota became the last state to recognize Juneteenth with Texas being the first in 1980.

Some beginnings are fairly quick, while others have a long and challenging path. For Juneteenth, the beginning as a federally recognized holiday took 156 years.

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“We have simply got to make people aware that none of us are free until we’re all free, and we aren’t free yet.” – Opal Lee

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