On this day 156 years ago, a brief statement in clipped military prose was read on Galveston Island in the state of Texas.
People might argue about the historical and legal details of that reading. But the date, June 19, has come to symbolize the end of legal human bondage in the United States.
Most people in Galveston know at least the highlights of that historic event.
The Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect Jan. 1, 1863, while the Civil War still raged. But it was meaningless until the rebel armies were defeated and the United States could enforce President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation.
The war ended in Virginia in April 1865. Gradually, slaves in the remaining parts of the Confederacy were freed. Texas, which was then the frontier, was the last state to get the word.
And so, on June 19, 1865, Union Army forces under the command of Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger occupied Galveston and read General Order No. 3, freeing those still in bondage here.
As slavery ended, something else began — a grassroots tradition of celebrating freedom, of being joyful, of being thankful.
That celebration came to be known as Juneteenth.
It’s amazing to consider that Juneteenth, which began as a spontaneous outpouring of joy among the newly freed in an occupied city in a defeated rebellious nation, survived over the years; through Reconstruction, through the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, through the Jim Crow era and segregation.
But Juneteenth not only survived, it thrived and spread until it was celebrated in places across the country and around the world.
Today, people will gather in those many places, and especially in Galveston, to celebrate the end of the most un-American part of American history, just as they have for 156 years.
This Juneteenth is remarkably different than most that came before, however. Perhaps not since the very first in 1865 has there been more reason to celebrate.
Just before 3 p.m. Central Time on Thursday, President Joe Biden signed into law the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, making Galveston’s home-grown celebration the first new national holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983, almost 40 years ago.
That signing was the culmination of work started almost 30 years ago by ardent advocates who just refused to stop trying.
Every year, they had asked for some federal recognition of Juneteenth, and every year they were rejected.
When the victory came, it came swiftly.
The U.S. Senate unanimously passed the act Tuesday. The U.S. House followed Wednesday with an overwhelming bipartisan vote — 415 for, 14 against. The Juneteenth holiday was the law of the land by Thursday. Remarkable.
Lincoln’s executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation, didn’t abolish slavery. It applied only to slaves in the rebellious Southern states.
Slavery wasn’t officially abolished in the United States until the 13th Amendment was ratified in December 1865.
The abhorrent practice of keeping humans as property, like cattle, didn’t finally end everywhere in the United States with the reading of General Order No. 3 in Galveston on June 19, 1865.
But that’s what the day has come to symbolize, just as July 4 symbolizes the country’s independence from the British crown.
Juneteenth this week evolved again from a day observed mostly by Black people into one among only a dozen national holidays.
Some people find reason to object to the national holiday in those ethnic roots. One reader asked why he shouldn’t have a national holiday celebrating his German ancestry.
Those arguments miss the point, the significance, of what the event has come to mean.
Juneteenth celebrates a huge step toward realizing the ideals upon which the nation was founded.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We were closer to realizing that ideal on June 20, 1865, than we had been before. We are closer today than we were then.
That’s a fine reason for all who believe in those foundational principles of the United States to celebrate.
Juneteenth is not a holiday for Black Americans; it’s a holiday for all Americans.
• Michael A. Smith