Understanding the Importance and History of Juneteenth

Historian and host of the PBS television series “Finding Your Roots,” co-produced by Ancestry®Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes about why we commemorate Juneteenth, and explains the history behind the day (June 19).

“Juneteenth celebrates a declaration of freedom in Texas that occurred two months after Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union commander Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia—and two and half years following President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. On June 19, 1865, U.S. General Gordon Granger issued General Orders Number 3 from his headquarters in Galveston:

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.

Granger had numerous motivations for issuing the order. Even though enslaved people in Texas were already legally free under the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation, violence and neo-enslavement had continued. In fact, during the war, Confederates had fled to the state, bringing with them about 150,000 slaves, growing the state’s total to 250,000. And even after the war ended, many former slave owners refused to view the freedpeople as anything other than their property, no matter what the military or the government said. 

Black Texas celebrated the announcement as confirmation of their freedom, and when the date came again in 1866, an unlikely annual holiday was born. African Americans gathered to celebrate freedom by dressing in their best clothes and gathering with friends and family, reading the Emancipation Proclamation and the Bible, and conveying to young people the importance of maintaining their hard won victory over slavery.

Juneteenth spread well beyond Texas. As Isabel Wilkerson writes in her modern classic, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, ‘The people from Texas took Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other places they went.’ While the holiday waned in importance over the twentieth century, it was revived by unfortunate circumstances–the end of the Poor People’s Campaign on June 19, 1968. Ending the once-promising campaign on that date managed to reignite Juneteenth celebrations. Texas even declared it an official holiday in 1979. Today, 46 states and the District of Columbia recognize it as well. 

As we look to shape the history unfolding around us today, let us gather not only to celebrate the perseverance of our people but also to plan for the “stony road” ahead.”

  • by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Host of “Finding Your Roots” on PBS, Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research and Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard

Researching African American Ancestors on Ancestry

More:  “Roots Less Traveled”, a new television series co-produced by Ancestry® to debut on NBC April 4

Ancestry® and AncestryDNA® can help you discover your family history that led up to this moment.

Due to the long history of slavery in the United States, family history research can be challenging for many African Americans. Census takers rarely recorded the names of enslaved people and seldom listed family members together. Enslaved people were often subjected to forced name changes, family separation, and sexual violence. 

With the results of your AncestryDNA test, we can help unlock stories of the people and places that make up your recent family histories. AncestryDNA will give you a unique picture of your ethnic heritage and it can connect you to distant family members across the globe. Learn more about AncestryDNA® communities for customers of African American and Afro-Caribbean descent.



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