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Why all Americans should celebrate Juneteenth

A historian explains the country’s true independence day.

Liz Scheltens is a senior editorial producer for the Vox video team.

When American schoolchildren learn about slavery in the US, they are often told it ended with Abraham Lincoln’s signature on the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

But as late as June 19, 1865, enslaved people in Texas were still held in bondage. On that date, federal troops entered the state and began to punish slave holders and former Confederates who refused to obey the law.

“Juneteenth is a deeply emotional moment for enslaved people,” says historian Karlos K. Hill, of the University of Oklahoma.

In Texas and across the country, emancipated African Americans began celebrating annually, with parades, concerts, and picnics. “Being able to go wherever they want and being able to wander about; for enslaved people, it was an expression of their freedom,” says Hill. “Formerly enslaved people celebrating, in public, their newfound freedom, was an act of resistance.”

However, by 1877, the federal government had largely abandoned the South. The lynching era — when hundreds of African Americans were killed by white mobs each year across the North and the South — began soon after.

Today, Hill says, commemorating Juneteenth is important for all Americans because it helps us see all the ways that slavery still shapes this country, including, as he says, “the desire to master and dominate black bodies.”

Check out the video above to hear Hill explain the history and emotional significance of Juneteenth.

Sources/further reading

Why celebrating Juneteenth is more important now than ever (P.R. Lockhart, Vox, 2018)

The Impact of Lynching on Black Culture and Memory: The Impact of Lynching on Black Culture and Memory (Karlos K. Hill, Cambridge University Press, 2016)

The Murder of Emmett Till: A Graphic History (Karlos K. Hill and Dave Dodson, Cambridge University Press, 2020)

Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror (Equal Justice Initiative, 2017)

The National Museum of African American History and Culture— online collection

Portraits of African American ex-slaves from the U.S. Works Progress Administration, Federal Writers’ Project slave narratives collections (Library of Congress)

Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories (Library of Congress)

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938 (Library of Congress)

African American Spirituals (Library of Congress)

Florida Memory: State Library and Archives of Florida

New Georgia Encyclopedia (Georgia Humanities)

Austin History Center General Collection Photographs (The Portal to Texas History, University of North Texas Libraries)