Published June 4, 2024

“Everybody went wild. We all felt like heroes and nobody had made us that way but ourselves. We was free. Just like that, we was free.” 

In 1937, Felix Haywood, a formerly enslaved man who’d lived his life in Texas, recalled the moment he learned that no one could legally claim ownership to him. His recollection spanned almost sixty years, back the summer of 1865. President Abraham Lincoln had declared the Emancipation Proclamation in effect in 1863. But to 250,000 people enslaved in Texas, that piece of paper didn’t mean a thing. Texas remained a “slave state.” 

On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, reading General Order 3, which declared in part: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance to a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”  

In June of 1866, celebrations kicked off in Galveston and Houston Texas. The holiday, Juneteenth, was born, quickly spreading across Texas. As formerly enslaved people reconnected with friends and family from the South, or pulled up stakes and relocated altogether, they brought their traditions with them.  

Juneteenth was not the only celebration of freedom. In Richmond Virginia, for instance, the Black community annually marked April 3, while in Alexandria, it was April 7. Like other African American communities, such as those in South Carolina and Pennsylvania, Norfolk hosted a celebration on January 1. All of these dates corresponded with various milestones in the legal and de facto abolishment of slavery.  

More than one hundred years later, in 2020, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam marked Juneteenth as a state holiday. In 2021, President Joe Biden marking it a federal holiday.  

Juneteenth is more than a celebration. It’s a marker of freedom: the freedoms that African Americans have worked to gain, and the paths we’ve yet to trod, working together with others in our communities. It’s an acknowledgement of the resilience we’ve had, and that we’ll need yet. And it’s an homage to our ancestors, our generations, and our broadening diaspora. 

For me, this is a time to reflect through reading. Stories, narratives, truths, and poems are what I turn to when I think about this holiday. I’ve listed a few new books that speak to what Juneteenth means to me: 

Learn more about the history of Juneteenth from Encyclopedia Virginia

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With generous support from Michelle and David Baldacci

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