A History of Juneteenth Celebrations

Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, is a holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the United States. But do you know about the very first Juneteenth celebration?

Origins of Juneteenth

Juneteenth traces its roots back to June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, with news that the Civil War had ended and that all enslaved individuals were now free. This announcement came two and a half years after President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which had officially abolished slavery in Confederate states.

A handbill of military orders that includes General Orders Nos. 2, 3 and 4, issued in Galveston on June 19, 1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Early Celebrations

Three days after Order #3 was received, the first Freedman's Fancy Ball was held in the Berlocher Building in Galveston, Texas. The following day, the city Mayor tried to have the promoter of the event arrested on the grounds of lack of permission from city officials. The promoter had gotten permission and was released from jail, but the Mayor was then thrown into the same jail cell.

Following years the celebrations increased. Celebrations usually included dressing in one's finest clothes and eating watermelon and barbeque at a picnic with live music. Eventually committees and organizations were formed to organize and oversee the events.

A band gathers to be photographed at an Emancipation Day celebration in Austin, Texas, in June 1900. Courtesy of the Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

Modern Observance

Today, Juneteenth is observed with a variety of events and activities, including parades, cookouts, historical reenactments, and educational programs. It serves as a time to reflect on the struggles and achievements of African Americans throughout history and to celebrate the ongoing fight for equality and justice.

As Juneteenth continues to gain recognition and significance, it remains an important reminder of the long journey toward freedom and equality for all Americans.


Read more about the history of Juneteenth in our recently published book, Galveston's Juneteenth Story.