Growing up in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the 1970s and 1980s, I didn’t celebrate Juneteenth. In fact, I didn’t know such a celebration existed until I went to college south of the Mason-Dixon line, in Virginia. This solidifies a curriculum perspective I have long held: Knowledge is the history you learn shaped by the history of place you’re learning it.
In Pennsylvania, I learned about the Native American tribes of the region, about places like Independence Hall and Gettysburg that were significant in American history, and about individuals and groups important to the state, including William Penn, Phillis Wheatley, the Quakers, Benjamin Franklin and Richard Allen.
Additionally, I learned that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was home to the largest free Black community in the new nation, in part as a result of the passage of the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in March 1780. This act also provided for the emancipation of enslaved persons after holding residence in the Commonwealth for six months.
And while I also learned about some of the inequalities that placed Black Americans in Pennsylvania in second-class status, many of the circumstances known to Black people living in the South were not part of the everyday realities of Black people in Pennsylvania.
Juneteenth simply was not part of my K–12 educational experience.
A combination of the words “June” and “19th” — Juneteenth commemorates the announcement of emancipation of enslaved people in Texas on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. The Emancipation Proclamation is significant because it legally ended slavery in the United States. Many Black Americans have long celebrated Juneteenth as an unofficial Independence Day.
Juneteenth became an official federal holiday June 17, 2021. Numerous states have also made it an official holiday and some other states have provided it as a paid holiday for state employees. While celebrations occur in most states, we as a country have an opportunity to officially commemorate this important day in every state. As citizens in a democratic society, it is important for all of us to learn how each of us have moved through the history of this nation and celebrate our triumphs together.
These celebrations of freedom from enslavement include church services, parades, parties, festivals, speeches, dramatizations and music. These celebrations and gatherings offer opportunities to remember the trials and tribulations our ancestors endured as enslaved peoples, to learn more about the history of Black peoples in the United States, and to teach valuable lessons to others about the past and present experiences of the African diaspora in the United States. These celebrations and opportunities have facilitated ongoing community discussions regarding economic and educational development of the Black community, public dialogues on the lived experiences of Blacks, the development of African American museums and monuments, and ongoing research on the Black experience in the United States to include the development of research centers and institutes.
Juneteenth is also significant to the legal history of this country.
First, the Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order, a legal power held solely by a sitting president of the United States of America and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. As with a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court or a bill passed into law by the U.S. Congress, an executive order becomes effective upon signature. This is one of the early lessons we learn in school about how laws are developed and implemented in this country.
An important fact often excluded from school curriculums is that the Emancipation Proclamation expressly granted freedom only to those enslaved people in the Confederate States, which included Texas. It did not bring relief to enslaved persons residing in border states that were loyal to the Union.
Second, the Emancipation Proclamation opened the doors to the 13th and 14th Amendments. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, and the 14th Amendment defines and identifies citizenship and the rights associated with citizenship. The relationship between the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment rests in the notion of freedom and the rights and responsibilities of freedom.
The executive order (1) declares freedom for enslaved persons, (2) supports such freedom through the federal government and its military entities, and (3) prevents the dissolution of such freedom, stating it “will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”
The relationship between the executive order and the 14th Amendment is connected to the equal protection clause as well as a specific area affiliated with citizenship: serving in the military. President Lincoln declared that freed persons “will be received into the armed service of the United States…” Lincoln also makes one responsibility clear to freed people: “I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence…”.
The proclamation notes that freedom shall not be repressed. This is what I believe to be the primary significance of Juneteenth.
While President Lincoln clearly declares twice in this document that all persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a state shall be free, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the surrender at Appomattox Court House, slavery remained unchanged in Texas.
The law alone did not change or eliminate slavery in the United States. In fact, the defining event of June 19, 1865, was the arrival of Union Major General Gordon Granger in Galveston and his subsequent orders directing federal troops to seize control of the state to ensure all enslaved people were freed.
While I was not afforded the opportunity to learn this part of our nation’s history as a public school student, knowledge of this historical moment in our country has enriched my experience as a citizen of this country and has reaffirmed the tremendous growth we have experienced as a nation.
These celebrations and opportunities led to a new federal holiday. Juneteenth became an official federal holiday June 17, 2021. Numerous states have also made it an official holiday and some other states have provided it as a paid holiday for state employees. While celebrations occur in most states, we as a country have an opportunity to officially commemorate this important day in every state. As citizens in a democratic society, it is important for all of us to learn how each of us have moved through the history of this nation and celebrate our triumphs together.
Anderson, J. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1945. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.
Taylor, C.A. (2002). Juneteenth: A celebration of freedom. Greensboro, NC: Open Hand Publishing.
Jeffries, J.L. (2004). Juneteenth: Black Texans and the case for reparations. Negro Educational Review, 55, 2/3, 107-115.
Hume, J. & Arceneaux, N. (2008). Public memory, cultural legacy, and press coverage of the Juneteenth revival. Journalism History, 34(3), 155-162.
Blanck, E. (2019). Galveston on San Francisco Bay: Juneteenth in the Filmore district, 1945-2016. Western Historical Quarterly, 50(2), 85-112.
Theodorea Regina Berry is UCF’s vice provost and dean, College of Undergraduate Studies. In her role, she drives efforts to offer students in her college robust programs while supporting university-wide initiatives to advance undergraduate education, take learning beyond the classroom, and promote greater student success. Berry works closely with the university’s provost, fellow deans and leaders of academic units to create and sustain a learning environment that enables students to thrive academically, professionally and civically.