Ahead of Juneteenth, “History Factory Plugged In” host Jason Dressel sat down with Dr. Matthew Delmont, the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of History at Dartmouth College, to discuss the origin and significance of the holiday. The following is an excerpt of that conversation. For the full episode, click here to listen or scroll to the bottom of this post.
Jason Dressel: Professor Delmont, thank you so much for joining “History Factory Plugged In.”
Matthew Delmont: Thanks for having me, Jason.
JD: Our pleasure. Well, let’s first start with before the specifics of Juneteenth. From my history courses, I’ve always thought of the end of slavery as Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. But the world didn’t move quite as quickly back then. And even now, history often is not exactly a linear process. The end of the end of slavery was far more messy and more complex than just a proclamation. Could share for our listeners a little bit about how you characterize the end of slavery, and where did that leave millions of African Americans who were enslaved, and how did that process play out?
MD: I think it’s a great place to start. So when I think about the end of slavery, I think more of a process and a struggle as opposed to a single moment. As you mentioned, the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Lincoln in January of 1863, during the middle of the Civil War. It’s a tremendously powerful document on paper, and it does kind of change the complexion of what the war was being fought over from that point forward. It’s a war to end slavery, but it doesn’t actually free any of the 4 million enslaved people who are in the United States at the time in the Southern states. That doesn’t happen until the Union is able to take control of those Southern settlements and eventually doesn’t really happen until the 13th Amendment was passed in December of 1865.
So you think about the kind of lived reality on the ground for enslaved people in late 1863, ’64, even most of 1865, very little changes in terms of their day-to-day life. In Texas, where Juneteenth originates, there are 250,000 enslaved Black people — two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation is signed — in the middle of 1865. And so when we think about the end of slavery, it’s a process. The Emancipation Proclamation kicked it off in the evolution that had been going on for the prior decades.
The signing of the 13th and the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December of 1865, that’s the kind of legal end of slavery. But even still for enslaved people, there are not a lot of options for them in the South. Most of them are still property. They’re poor. They go back to working for many of the same plantation owners, either for wages or as sharecroppers. They have a brief moment during Reconstruction where it looks like economic rights, political rights are going to be expanded, and then that opportunity is really quickly foreclosed by 1877. So slavery ends by definition, but the sort of rights and freedoms that Black people anticipated in 1865 are still decades later in terms of actually being realized.
JD: Your point about the expectations—I’m curious to get more clarity on what were the expectations, if you were a slave in 1864 and all of a sudden you have this this potential for freedom?
MD: It really comes down to what does freedom mean, and for most enslaved people, freedom meant freedom across all aspects of their lives, or freedom in terms of mobility. The ability to leave the South moved to different regions; freedom in terms of who they could marry and how they could choose to form their family networks and reconnect with kin; freedom in terms of where they work and set their own wage for work and get paid for their labor; freedom in terms of education, in terms of church and religious affiliations. Some of those come true after 1865, but many of them are foreclosed.
Think about the question of mobility. Most Americans are either ordered or compelled to stay basically in place. They’re not allowed to leave the places where they had been formerly enslaved in terms of political rights. There’s that moment after the war with reconstruction where African Americans have enhanced voting rights and have the ability to serve in elective office. You see a number of Black politicians serving in, representing the Southern states two decades after the Civil War. That opportunity is foreclosed intentionally because of the rise of more white supremacist Southern governments.
Finally, in terms of economic rights, there was very little in terms of restitution or reparations given to enslaved African Americans. They floated the idea of 40 acres that would be given to formerly enslaved people to start to give them property and to start their own livelihoods and start their own economic futures. That doesn’t happen. That land in the South is eventually given back to white plantation owners who owned it before the Civil War. And so that is one of the foundational questions and fault lines in American history, that moment—the end of the Civil War—where freedom is promised and signaled on paper. But in terms of the lived realities, the ideas of freedom aren’t fully realized for many Americans for generations afterward.
JD: You mentioned before, the origins of Juneteenth being in Texas after the Civil War. Can we hear more about what Juneteenth is and how it started?
MD: Juneteenth originated in Texas and really a combination of June and 19th. So that’s where “Juneteenth” comes from. It signifies the date when the Union Army arrived in Galveston, Texas, June 19, 1865, and delivered news of the Emancipation Proclamation. Up until that point, the enslaved people in Texas had been working under the same conditions they had been for generations. When the Union Army finally arrived in Galveston, they announced that slaves will be free. They were just bringing the news of the Emancipation Proclamation some two-and-a-half years later to Texas. It’s a moment of tremendous change in Texas. It doesn’t happen overnight, but the announcement of this is tremendously powerful for formerly enslaved people.
In Texas, this means freedom. This is what they expect. This is going to be the sort of new chapter in their lives. For a lot of white Texans, though, it’s very concerning. It’s like their world has been turned upside down. And so you see these pressures kind of in microcosm in Texas that for African Americans, they see this is the moment that freedom is finally going to be realized. For white Texans, this is the moment that they want to try to contain and try to push Black people back into a second-class citizenship. But Juneteenth becomes powerful because it’s the date that Black Texans point to as their emancipation date. And so it’s celebrated from 1866, every year onward as a set of kind of community gathering that mixes sporting events, picnics, cookouts, spirituals, prayer—a mix of cookout and a church revival. That’s a moment of joy and mourning for what had come before, but also the kind of better futures that people hope to create.
Obviously the moment of emancipation is extremely powerful for Black people in United States and also across the diaspora. But Juneteenth as a holiday is really a Texas thing. It spread to other states in the late 1800s and then into the early and mid 1900s as Black Texans move elsewhere, as they migrate to the neighboring states around Texas and then eventually to California and to the Midwest and to the Northeast. That’s how Juneteenth comes to be more of a national Black holiday as opposed to just a Texas thing.
JD: And how has the holiday evolved over time?
MD: It has ebbed and flowed over time. There have been moments where Juneteenth has been more pronounced in the early part of the 20th century. It waned a little bit during the World War II era, and then it came back quite prominently in the 1970s after the Civil Rights era. As more Black communities want to publicly celebrate, cultural pride started to see Juneteenth more publicly. And then eventually, in 1980, Texas becomes the first state to recognize it as a political memory, as a holiday. Today, 47 states commemorate it in some way, and then a handful of states have started to honor 2020. And it’s powerful, but also that it has sort of migrated across the country and kind of had an ebb and flow. That’s really important.
One of the things that has stood out to me, too, is that often the Emancipation Proclamation is read at Juneteenth, particularly in the earlier years. That was a key part of the celebrations. And what I think is powerful about that when I reflect on it, is for those first 50 years when Juneteenth was celebrated after the end of the Civil War, up until the early part of the 1900s, you would have had formerly enslaved people at those Juneteenth celebrations. So to think about what it would have meant for them to be reading or hearing the Emancipation Proclamation read and knowing that it had so impacted them personally—that they would have still had the scars both physically and psychologically from having been enslaved, having been treated as property—but then to be able to celebrate with their communities this emancipation. Thinking about that language, the Emancipation Proclamation and the promises of freedom. And for folks who are living in a time by the late 1800s or 1900s where Jim Crow is fully entrenched in the South and they’ve lost voting rights and they see lynchings happening in neighboring communities, there’s a sense of loss. I think we’re thinking about the Emancipation Proclamation and hearing that read and thinking about what had been gained and what had been lost and what fate still remained. So that sense of all that history coming together on a single day, a single holiday, is just really powerful for me.
For the full conversation, listen to the latest episode of the “History Factory Plugged In” podcast here or in the player below.