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William Blair explains the origins of Juneteenth and the tradition of Emancipation Day celebrations throughout the United States

Today, the UNC Press blog explains the origins of Juneteenth and the tradition of Emancipation Day celebrations throughout the United States with contributions from William A. Blair, author of Cities of the Dead and With Malice toward Some and editor of Lincoln’s Proclamation

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What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, given by President Abraham Lincoln, that declared freedom for all slaves in states still in rebellion. Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation following the Battle of Antietam on September 22, 1862, as a warning to the Confederacy, and the official order went into effect on January 1, 1863.  

Why June 19?

There are several dates that could celebrate the Emancipation, such as January 1 or September 22 or even February 1 (National Freedom Day,) but Juneteenth has become the most popular. June 19, 1865, commemorates the day when slaves in the Galveston, Texas, area heard a proclamation of freedom read by Union General Granger. 

When did other regions celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation?

Celebrations often occurred around when black people in a particular region won their liberation. These were often tied either to the appearance of the Union army or the defeat of the Confederate military. For example, Richmond residents marked April 3 when Lee’s army fled the capital, while others preferred April 9, when that army surrendered at Appomattox. Beginning with the issuing of the proclamation in 1863, African Americans in the Union-occupied Sea Islands near South Carolina and Georgia gathered in ceremonial events to mark what they hoped was the destruction of slavery. 

Who celebrates it now?

Juneteenth had been only a regional observance until its revival in the last several decades of the twentieth century. Before then, it was remembered primarily by residents of Texas and the Southwest. Now it is celebrated nationwide with many states holding formal celebrations and festivals. 

How is Juneteenth celebrated?

Wherever African Americans constituted significant proportions of the population, business (at least black-owned ones) stopped for the day as African Americans conducted a parade. They listened to orations from prominent members of the community. A central ritual was the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, a duty considered as a special honor by the reader. Orators used these occasions to highlight the contribution of black people to American civic life and, consequently, press the case for the advancement and protection of their rights. Celebrations today look similar with picnics, festivals, and a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. 

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William A. Blair, the Walter L. and Helen P. Ferree Professor of American History at the Pennsylvania State University, serves as director of the Richards Civil War Era Center and is the founding editor of the Journal of the Civil War Era