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Happy Juneteenth, our annual celebration of the end of slavery

An Emancipation Day celebration in Richmond.
An Emancipation Day celebration in Richmond.
Library of Congress

June 19 is Juneteenth: the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, came under authority of the Union Army orders ending slavery. Today, it's a holiday filled with parades, good food, and references to struggles of the past and present.

But why did this day, with an unusual name and specifically Texan roots, become the preeminent celebration of emancipation?

Emancipation Day celebrations used to be on many different dates

It seems logical that Emancipation Day would be celebrated on the day of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation that declared the end of slavery in the Confederacy on January 1, 1863. But that proclamation didn't have a significant practical effect for many enslaved people until the Civil War ended in 1865.

So instead, people celebrated emancipation when freedom actually touched their lives, which scattered the dates across the calendar.

These celebrations included many unofficial holidays on various dates. In Charleston, Boston, and Richmond, emancipation was celebrated on January 1. In New York it was August 1, in solidarity with the end of slavery in the British Empire. In Washington, DC, it was April 16, the same day slavery ended in the District.

How did Juneteenth become the biggest day of celebration?

A Juneteenth celebration in Denver in 2012.

A Juneteenth celebration in Denver in 2012.

Kathryn Scott Osler/Getty Images

The Juneteenth portmanteau — mashing up "June" and "nineteenth" — appears to be uniquely Texan. Texas was geographically isolated from the rest of the Civil War, and troops in the West didn't even surrender until late May (well after Robert E. Lee surrendered). That delayed both news of the war's end and emancipation. Finally, on June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger issued an order freeing all slaves, creating what would later be known as Juneteenth.

Juneteenth retained its prominence in the region over time. And as other Emancipation Day celebrations faded, Juneteenth endured. In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign held a June Teenth Solidarity Day, connecting the civil rights struggle with the holiday. At the same time, parties like the Juneteenth Blues Spectacular showed up in popular culture, recasting the holiday as an opportunity to celebrate more contemporary black culture. That mix of social concern and celebration kept Juneteenth in the public eye (and things like Ralph Ellison's posthumously published 1999 novel Juneteenth probably didn't hurt).

In 1980, the Texas legislature made Juneteenth an official state holiday. From there, the holiday grew to be celebrated around the country — and today, one of the largest Juneteenth parades is held in Milwaukee.

There's also another, more intangible reason Juneteenth became the best-known day to celebrate emancipation: its romantic and unusual name. That probably helped it stand out against the "Emancipation Days" scattered across the calendar. Juneteenth was never merely a celebration of a change in law, but was instead a celebration of the freedom that followed.

Updated: An earlier version of this post unclearly distinguished the difference between the Compensated Emancipation Act (which did end slavery in Washington DC on April 16, 1862) and the Emancipation Proclamation.