President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862 in the midst of the Civil War. It declared that all people held as slaves in the Confederate States – those rebelling against the United States – would be free as of January 1, 1863.
The war was not over in January. Far from it. So even though slavery was outlawed, African Americans were denied their freedom in the South.
It was not until June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas and General Gordon Granger informed the last of the slaves that they were no longer to be held in bondage since the Emancipation Proclamation was complete. The celebration of this anniversary is known as Juneteenth.
"Juneteenth is the day that we commemorate the legal end of slavery in 1865," says Ivan Henderson, vice president of programming for the African American Museum in Philadelphia. "Independence was declared on July 4, 1776. Yet we know there wasn't true independence for so many groups other than land-owning white men.
"I believe it is as important a date on our calendars as so many others that we choose to remember and commemorate. It is a time to reflect and know what was lost. We could stand to learn from those lessons if we're willing to hear truth and speak truth."
The African American Museum in Philadelphia, which opened its doors on June 19, 1976 just before the United States Bicentennial, is hosting an incredible series of in-person and virtual experiences exploring the historical significance of, and thematic ties between, two quintessential U.S. holidays – Juneteenth and July 4.
• Juneteenth Celebration
Saturday, June 19, 11 AM-5 PM
AAMP hosts a daylong outdoor celebration in honor of the Juneteenth holiday. The Museum's Juneteenth celebration will include activities for youth and families, local vendors, and a live stage with performances by Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble, Warren Oree and the Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble, and other Philadelphia-based performance artists. The museum will also offer timed-entry for visitors to experience our core exhibition Audacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia, 1776-1876, and our current special exhibition, Anna Russell Jones: The Art of Design.
• Drive-In Film with Philadelphia Film Society
Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten Examines the Tulsa Race Massacre 100 Years Later
Monday, June 21, 9:10 PM
As part of the Philadelphia Film Society's returning drive-in film series at the Navy Yard, AAMP partners with WHYY to present a special screening of Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten Examines the Tulsa Race Massacre 100 Years Later. One of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history occurred 100 years ago, May 31-June 1, 1921. Known as the Tulsa Race Massacre, a mob of white residents set fire to "Black Wall Street" – hundreds of Black-owned businesses and homes in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma – killing an estimated 100-300 Black residents and leaving an estimated 10,000 Black residents homeless. The new documentary Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten examines this deadly assault on the 100th anniversary of the crime in the context of other racial massacres and police killings, including the one-year anniversary of the killing of George Floyd.
• Black Gotham Experience with Kamau Ware
Thursday, July 1, 6-9 PM
AAMP will partner with Kamau Ware of the Black Gotham Experience to host a Freedom-Liberty-themed conversation and performance mixer exploring the significance of the Juneteenth and July 4th holidays and noted African American figures from Philadelphia history, while highlighting ties to contemporary artists living and working in the city.
• Freedom-Liberty Celebration
Saturday, June 26, 11 AM-2 PM
Starting at Franklin Square and then moving to the front plaza at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, this program features historical reenactors Carlo Campbell and Ned Hector interpreting important speeches by noted African American figures from U.S. history. Also that day, artist and educator Jihan Thomas leads a creative workshop for families inspired by the Museum special exhibition Anna Russell Jones: The Art of Design, where participants can take inspiration from African American women in the armed forces and create a portrait collage using recent and vintage images of enlisted Black Women.
• Freedom-Liberty Celebration
Saturday, July 3, 11 AM-2 PM
Starting at Franklin Square and then moving to the front plaza at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, this program features historical reenactors Carlo Campbell and Ned Hector interpreting important speeches by noted African American figures from U.S. history. Additionally, artist and educator Jihan Thomas leads a creative workshop for youth and families exploring themes of freedom and liberty, and inspired by Frederick Douglas' speech "The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro" and artist David Hammond's mixed media work, "African American Flag."
Philadelphia's role in Juneteenth
The Emancipation Proclamation inspired African Americans, who were now eligible to fight thanks to the decree, to enlist in the Civil War with the hope that with victory would come the death of slavery. It was a brilliant move on Lincoln's part. He knew that he needed additional help to win the war. Slaves were used to bolster the Confederacy's forces. Welcoming African Americans to the Union's side would strengthen the North and weaken the South.
Octavius Catto, a Philadelphia-based civil rights activist, rallied African Americans in the city to enlist, creating a poster that read in bold letters "NOW OR NEVER" and "FAIL NOW & OUR RACE IS DOOMED" to highlight the urgency of the moment. A statue of Catto, referred to as the Martin Luther King of the 19th century, now resides outside of Philadelphia's City Hall. Thanks to the work of abolitionists like Catto, Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and several others in Philadelphia, Camp William Penn was created in Cheltenham, just outside of Philadelphia, to train African American soldiers from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. It was the only African American camp in Pennsylvania and the largest in the nation during the Civil War. Situated on land previously owned by abolitionist Lucretia Mott, over 10,000 troops prepared for battle at Camp William Penn starting in June 1863.
Soldiers from Camp William Penn were sent to Virginia and helped defeat Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, but there was no social media to alert that the war was coming to an end. The troops from Camp William Penn continued down to Texas and some helped escort Granger as he declared that the slaves were free in Galveston.
"All slaves are free," Granger told the people, reading what is now known as General Order No. 3. "This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and the rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor."
Why is Juneteenth now a federal holiday?
One year after the last of the slaves were freed in Galveston, Texas, African Americans celebrated the anniversary as if it was their own Fourth of July by reading the Emancipation Proclamation and celebrating with prayer, speeches, dances, games, and plenty of food. Juneteenth was a joyous African American tradition through the end of the century, but the tradition declined for several reasons in the early 1900s. The Great Depression forced several African Americans to find work in the cities where bosses didn't grant the time off for Juneteenth. And while African Americans were free from slavery, they weren't free from racism which showed up in the form of Jim Crow laws that allowed for segregation as well as other intimidation measures.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s helped rekindle Juneteenth celebrations beyond the families that kept the tradition alive. Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday in 1980. Ronald Brown of the Pennsylvania Juneteenth Coalition helped make Juneteenth a part of the School District of Philadelphia curriculum in 1999. Pennsylvania State Rep. Sue Helm led the push to make Juneteenth National Freedom Day a state holiday in Pennsylvania, which was signed into law by Governor Tom Wolf in 2019. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney used a one-time executive order to make it a city holiday in 2020. This week, a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday passed through both the Senate and the House of Representatives. President Joe Biden signed it into law on Thursday.
"As a kid, I always wondered why we knew so much about the beginnings of wars, especially the Civil War, but why wasn't I taught very early the day that enslavement of Africans ended? That should have been a big deal for all of us," says Henderson, who grew up in St. Louis. "I think as we've seen a rise in social justice issues and more voices involved in those discussions and efforts to really try to stamp out some of the injustice that we see in this country and in this world, I think there's increasing interest in learning those narratives.
"I know that there is interest now, so I'm trying to use our platform as a museum to satisfy curiosity. Knowing about things like Juneteenth allows us to get closer to the truth of who we really are."
– Chris McPherson