“Great nations don’t ignore the most painful moments. ... They embrace them,” said President Biden as he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act — passed unanimously in the U.S. Senate — to make Juneteenth — June 19th — a federal holiday.
Juneteenth, of course, had been celebrated across the country for decades, in public and in private ceremonies. The holiday marks the day in 1865, two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, that slavery was officially ended in Texas. On that day, Union Army Major General Gordon Granger announced, as his forces gathered in Galveston, that “The people of Texas are informed that ... all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves...”
A myth grew up that no one in Texas had been aware of the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves or of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the end of the Civil War. In fact, as historians have discovered, Texans — both masters and slaves — knew about these events, but slave owners resisted freeing the slaves until they were forced to by the power of federal troops.
Juneteenth not only celebrates the end of slavery, it celebrates the continuing struggle for equality under the law. The defeat of the Confederate States in the Civil War was, in many ways, only the beginning of the struggle.
To enforce equal rights, Congress passed what is now recognized as the “second founding” — the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, outlawing slavery, guaranteeing equal protection under the laws, and protecting the right to vote against racial discrimination.
The Second Founding led to the era of Reconstruction across the South, where new coalitions were built, many uniting former slaves with small white farmers, to elect new leaders and create new state constitutions. In many states, this era led to dramatic reforms — spreading public education, strengthening the jury system, providing public support for libraries, parks, highways and roads and more.