Renowned Harvard professor breaks down significance of Juneteenth
Last year, President Joe Biden made Juneteenth the newest federal holiday. The day, June 19, marks the date in 1865 when the last enslaved people in America were finally freed.
Renowned Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. told CBS News that marking the day as a holiday was a long time coming.
“Juneteenth was not embraced as a national Black holiday for a long, long time,” Gates said. “But it was kept alive in Texas by Black people. It’s that simple. Holidays are what our people long for. Hungry to learn about traditions. Hungry to hear stories about Black history. “
By his day, Gates is a professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the host and producer for the PBS genealogy program “Finding Your Roots” as well as numerous documentaries about Black history.
He outlined the three most significant historical moments in liberating those who were enslaved.
“The Emancipation Proclamation, signed on January 1, 1863, Juneteenth, June 19, 1865, and then finally, the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865 — which is what finally and ultimately abolished the institution of slavery,” Gates said. When asked why Juneteenth was so popular, Gates replied, “One reason that Juneteenth stuck is because we’re all charmed with the poetic brilliance, ‘Juneteenth.’ What better name for June 19 could there possibly be? It’s catchy, it’s charming, you know? It’s catchy. “
Gates said there is also a bit of fiction around that day in 1865, when, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Gordon Granger issued general order no. 3 to liberate the Galveston, Texas enslaved Blacks.
“We were taught that Abraham Lincoln had freed slaves. He said that the Emancipation Proclamation did not have the power to release anyone. It only applied to Confederacy enslaved persons, and it cannot be enforced if Union soldiers have captured territory in South, in Confederacy. “
Gates said it’s believed only 500,000 out of 3.9 million enslaved men and women were freed due to the Emancipation Proclamation. He explained that the Civil War didn’t end when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865 — which is why it took longer to get word out.
“So Texas finally gives in to the Union on June 2. Gordon Granger comes, and on June 19 in Galveston, he issues the Emancipation Proclamation. Because the Union Army now has the territory. Gates stated that this is the real story.
He explained why historians believe that Texas enslaved people knew about the Emancipation Proclamation long before it was issued.
” One is due to the proverbial “grapevine.” Gates explained that there was a miraculous way for enslaved persons to communicate plantation to state and state to state. “But there was another factor. Because Texas was exempted from the main Civil War action, many slaveholders fled to Texas for safety. They also took their enslaved family members with them. “
Gates also stressed the significance of the era that came after Juneteenth, which saw the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments and Reconstruction Acts. This was the first concentration in Black power,” Gates stated. “In the summer of 1867, 80% of all eligible Black men, who were formerly enslaved in the South, registered to vote. And in 1868, they actually voted. Ulysses S. Grant was elected president, so it is reasonable to say that Black men have elected a president of America. “
Back in Galveston, the formerly enslaved began marking their freedom with a celebration in 1866. Gates stated to CBS News that Juneteenth’s details are not as important as the message it sent.
“Juneteenth was one of the first holidays that Blacks created on their own. He said that of all the holidays they created during slavery, Juneteenth was the most popular and is now a national holiday. “Any manifestation of freedom should be celebrated in a country that was built on the love of liberty. Let’s all hope that this day comes soon. “
This story was produced by the CBS News Race and Culture Unit.