Juneteenth wasn’t the end of slavery in the United States

In Delaware and Kentucky, it remained legal to own slaves until the 13th Amendment in December 1865
Jason Askew's new painting on Juneteenth went up on the walls of the US embassy London just days before the event. Photo: Rashmee Roshan Lall

Here’s the legend of Juneteenth, as per a New York Times (NYT) report: “Juneteenth, an annual commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States after the Civil War, has been celebrated by African Americans since the late 1800s.”

But here’s the question: was it really the end of slavery in the United States after the Civil War?

The NYT report, which was originally published in 2020 and updated this year, is inaccurate about what Juneteenth actually signified.

It wasn’t the end of slavery in the United States. It was the formal attempt to enforce the end of slavery in all parts of the Confederacy, the southern states that had seceded from the United States. On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger, leading a force of Union soldiers to Galveston, Texas, issued an order proclaiming that slaves in Texas were free. It was a significant moment in President Abraham Lincoln’s struggle to end slavery. It had taken two years to militarily enforce Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which promised freedom to the slaves in all parts of the Confederacy. Lincoln didn’t have the political strength to end slavery in the Union, so Juneteenth didn’t mean freedom for every slave in the United States. In fact, slavery remained legal in two states that were part of the Union – Delaware and Kentucky – for a further six months until the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on December 6, 1865.

Juneteenth was not so remarkable a day for slaves in Texas either. Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr has written: “When Texas fell and Granger dispatched his now famous order No. 3, it wasn’t exactly instant magic for most of the Lone Star State’s 250,000 slaves. On plantations, masters had to decide when and how to announce the news — or wait for a government agent to arrive — and it was not uncommon for them to delay until after the harvest. Even in Galveston city, the ex-Confederate mayor flouted the Army by forcing the freed people back to work, as historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner details in her comprehensive essay, ‘Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory,’ in Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas.”

Things became even more violent for slaves who took Granger’s news to heart and made for freedom. They “did so at their peril” Mr Gates noted, quoting the account of a former slave Susan Merritt: “‘You could see lots of niggers hangin’ to trees in Sabine bottom right after freedom, ’cause they cotch ’em swimmin’ ‘cross Sabine River and shoot ’em’.”

So Juneteenth isn’t really “the recipe for a celebration”, to use Mr Gates’ words. That said, it’s still a worthwhile moment to mark because it gave slaves “a date to rally around”.

Even so, there could be several other suitable dates to celebrate the emancipation of slaves in America, the historian suggests.

Not least, September 22, 1862, the day President Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation Order. Or January 1, 1863, when the order took effect. But the most logical seems to be December 6, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was ratified.

Also read:

America’s London embassy marked Juneteenth with a painting and passionate D-I-Y

Juneteenth 2023 at the US embassy, London: It takes time to create national ritual