President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, but it would take nearly two-and-a-half years for all American slaves to be notified of their freedom. 

On June 19, 1865, Union troops, led by Gen. Gordon Granger, arrived in Galveston, Texas, to tell the African-American slaves they were free. 

A portmanteau of “June” and “19th,” Juneteenth is “about telling the truth about the history of America,” Dean Nelson, chairman of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, told The Daily Signal in a recent interview. 

Nelson added that “the story and the reminder of Juneteenth, when slaves didn’t realize they were free, now affirming the freedoms that we do have to the emerging generation is … powerful imagery.” 

When Granger arrived in Galveston, he stood on a balcony and proclaimed General Order No. 3, which informed the people of Texas that all slaves were free: 

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the executive of the United States, “all slaves are free.” This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

By command of Maj. Gen. Granger.

A year later, many former slaves celebrated the anniversary of their freedom. Today, Juneteenth is celebrated across the nation. 

In 1979, the Texas Legislature passed a bill making Juneteenth a state holiday. The Lone Star State was the first state to officially recognize Juneteenth in this way. Now, nearly all 50 states recognize, officially or unofficially, Juneteenth as a holiday. 

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. If it becomes law, Juneteenth would be America’s 12th federal holiday. 

Heritage Foundation President Kay C. James says Juneteenth is an opportunity “ to talk about the resilience, not only of the African-American community, but of this country.” 

James added that the holiday, also known as “Freedom Day” and “Emancipation Day,” serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of family, because, when many of the slaves learned of their freedom, the first thing they did was set out to find their families. 

The holiday should be “a day where we have family reunions, because the family is so important in the African-American community. In all communities, by the way,” James said. “And so, every year I want to make it a celebration where we decide: Family matters.”