Juneteenth: the past, the present and the future

Jun 19, 2024, 6:00 AM | Updated: 6:34 am

Juneteenth Utah...

The Juneteenth flag waves in the wind outside of the City-County Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 18, 2021. (Deseret News)

(Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Since 2021, Juneteenth has been recognized as a federal holiday. But what is it? How long has it actually been celebrated? What does it mean to Americans all over the country? 

The beginnings of Juneteenth

On June 19, 1865, almost two years after President Abraham Lincoln declared emancipation for slaves, Union troops came to Galveston Bay, Texas, with news of Emancipation, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

General Gordon Granger issued an order to the people of Texas, saying:

“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.” 

Before this, slaves in the area had no idea that they were, by law, freed people. 

After the Emancipation Proclamation was passed, many slave owners traveled from Confederate areas to Texas to, “escape the Union Army’s reach,” said historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. in an essay dictating the history of Juneteenth. 

 “In a hurried re-enactment of the original Middle Passage, more than 150,000 slaves had made the trek west, according to historian Leon Litwack in his book Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery,” Louis Gates Jr. wrote. “As one former slave he quotes recalled, ‘It looked like everybody in the world was going to Texas.’”

Ever since that day, African American communities have regarded June 19 as a “second independence day,” said The National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

Scholar William H. Wiggins Jr. explained in an interview with the Smithsonian that ever since, “[Juneteenth] has taken on a life of its own.”

Juneteenth today 

In 1979, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday. 

Since then, other states followed in Texas’ footsteps through the years. 

In 2021, President Joe Biden declared it an official federal holiday. 

Kelley Navies, museum specialist at the National Museum of African American History & Culture said “it’s a celebration of freedom, family and the joy of being alive… Being able to live into the future, to look to the past.” 

Local community events

This past weekend involved many Juneteenth celebrations, but there’s still opportunity to celebrate. 

Expungement clinic held in Salt Lake City in honor of Juneteenth

Weber State University’s Black Cultural Center will host a block party from 11 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. at the Stewart Bell Tower Plaza. “Attendees can learn about Black history while enjoying food, games and dancing,” according to a press release. 

The University of Utah will hold a flag-raising ceremony at 9:30 a.m. at the Park Building, 201 Presidents Circle. The ceremony will be followed by a program explaining the Juneteenth flag, by the head of the Salt Lake Branch of the NAACP Jeanetta Williams. The Utah Black Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sidni Shorter will also give remarks.

Utah State University will host a 5k in honor of Mignon Barker Richmond, the first African American student to graduate from a Utah university. 80% of the 5k proceeds will go to a memorial in her honor and 20% of the proceeds will go towards future Juneteenth programming, according to their website. 

They will also host a community barbeque at Bridger Park in Logan from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Related: Expungement clinic held today in Salt Lake City in honor of Juneteenth

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Juneteenth: the past, the present and the future