Juneteenth: Commemorating the end of slavery in the US

June 19, 2024, also known as Juneteenth, marks 161 years since the last African American slaves were freed in Texas.

In January 1863, US President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which freed African American slaves in the Confederate states during the American Civil War.

However, freedom for all didn’t happen immediately. More than two years later on June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger led 2,000 troops, which included many Black soldiers, to Galveston. There it was announced by executive decree that the 250,000 enslaved Black people in Texas were now free.

That day became known as Juneteenth, based on the combination of the month of June and the date the decree was made, the nineteenth.

In 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act which created a federal holiday in the US to commemorate Juneteenth. As Juneteenth increases in popularity, it’s being celebrated in a variety of ways, including festivals, rallies, and parades.

In the US, slavery impacted politics, economics, and culture. European and American slave merchants bought and transported Africans to the Americas where they were forced into slavery.

To gain a perspective of the total impact of slavery, the National Library of Medicine estimates that, in total, “approximately 10 million slaves lived in the United States, where they contributed 410 billion hours of labour.”

Africans were bought and sold, and treated like a commodity or property. Enslaved Africans were put to work on plantations and farms to produce crops such as tobacco, cotton, indigo, rice, and sugar.

Landowners forbade enslaved people from learning to read and write, enforced restrictive rules and codes of conduct, and meted out brutal punishments.

Enslaved men and women were also employed in northern and southern US cities as domestic servants, porters, and as a variety of tradespeople from carpenters to blacksmiths.

Juneteenth is much more than a federal US holiday. It provides a day for learning, reflection, and the opportunity to discuss important topics such as racism, freedom, and diversity.

It’s also a day to acknowledge the incredible contributions African Americans have made to arts and culture in America and the world. The Black Arts movement in the 1960s and early 1970s led to the creation of Black publishing houses, theatre companies, and literature. Predominant names in Black literature of that time include Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Alex Haley.

African Americans retained the holidays, dances, songs, and rituals of their homelands, and went on to influence genres of music such as gospel, jazz, rhythm and blues, funk, and hip-hop.

Important Black cultural figures are too numerous to mention, but some of the groundbreaking people who played key roles in American history and the world include:

  • Harriet Tubman, former slave who helped many slaves escape on the Underground Railroad
  • Jesse Owens, runner who won four Olympic gold medals in the Berlin Olympics in 1936
  • Rosa Parks, commuter who began the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955
  • Martin Luther King Jr., pivotal activist in the civil rights movement
  • Maya Angelou, poet, writer, and civil rights campaigner
  • Barack Obama, first U.S. president of African origin

As an American holiday, why should we acknowledge Juneteenth in Canada? The day also provides Canadians with the opportunity to reflect on our own history of racism against the Black community. Records from the colony of New France reveal that 3,600 enslaved people lived there, many of whom were Indigenous as well as African. Africans were brought to New France through the transatlantic slave trade.

The Code Noir (Black Code) set out laws governing enslaved people in most French colonies and influenced practices in New France. Owners had to provide food, shelter, and clothing, but they were also allowed to brand enslaved people and punish them through mutilation and even death.

The practice of slavery continued in Canada after the British took control of New France in 1763. The agreements reached after the war included the continuing enslavement of Black and Indigenous people.

Dark periods of our history cannot be ignored. It’s only by shining a light on the darkness that we can move forward and tackle the systemic, colonialist policies that result in racism and discrimination.

At Covenant House Vancouver, we stand in solidarity with those who are working to dismantle racism, hate, and prejudice. We stand united against those who perpetuate racism, hatred, and violence.

Racism and prejudice show up as poverty, homelessness, and human trafficking. At CHV, we provide unconditional love and absolute respect to the vulnerable youth in our community who are courageously building new lives.

The brave youth at CHV deserve to live in safety and with hope, and to be treated with dignity, respect, and acceptance, as do all people of colour who face persistent, demoralizing racism in their daily lives.

For a complete timeline of the history leading up to the creation of Juneteenth and to learn more about this important day, check out the Juneteenth National Museum.