Juneteenth: A Time of Reflection and Rejoicing

Although dates of emancipation vary from state to state, June 19th has come to be celebrated throughout the United States as a day to commemorate the end of slavery.

Page updated on Jun 22, 2021 at 8:11 PM

Juneteenth: A Time of Reflection and Rejoicing

Learn about our Celebrations for Juneteenth 2021

John Mercer Langston Portrait, Library of Congress 
John Mercer Langston delivered keynote speeches in Alexandria in 1895 and 1897.
Frederick Douglass Portrait, Library of Congress
 Frederick Douglass was keynote speaker at the 31st anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation on September 24, 1894.A Time of Reflection and Rejoicing
On June 19th, we celebrate Juneteenth (June + 19th), commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. On that day in 1865, General Gordon Granger of the Union Army and his troops arrived in Galveston to announce that the enslaved people in Texas were free and that “…rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer."

It took approximately 2 1/2 years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation for the news to reach the enslaved people in Texas that slaves in the rebellious states had been freed and for a sufficient number of soldiers to be in this remote area to enforce the executive order.

Texans began celebrating Juneteenth in 1866 and it was proclaimed an official state holiday in 1980. Emancipation celebrations throughout the years have included picnics and barbecues, family reunions, parades, music and dancing, speeches and stories, prayer services and learning, rodeos and horseback riding, carnivals and bazaars, beauty pageants, fishing, baseball games, and races.

While Texas chose June 19th as its Emancipation Day, some localities used the date when its enslaved population received the news of liberation. Yet others preferred January 1st, the date the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in 1863 or September 22nd, when President Lincoln first announced the Proclamation in 1862.

In Alexandria, there has been some discussion about observing Emancipation Day on April 7th, the date that the slaves were emancipated in Virginia. With a rich history of observance beginning in 1889, Alexandrians have celebrated on different days of the year and in different months. The first decade featured two eminent and renowned speakers, Frederick Douglass and John Mercer Langston. Douglass, abolitionist and orator, was the keynote speaker at the 31st anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation on September 24, 1894. Langston, the first African American elected to the United States Congress from Virginia, delivered keynote speeches in 1895 and 1897.

More recently, the Alexandria Black History Museum has celebrated Juneteenth for almost 30 years. Small festivals began with a mayoral reading of the Emancipation Proclamation followed by food, vendors, performances, and children’s games and crafts. Later observances have included film screenings, children’s programming, an open house featuring doll houses of historic Alexandria, and lectures by notable speakers, such as U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black, co-sponsored by the Northern Virginia Urban League, and historian C.R. Gibbs.

Although different localities may have varying Emancipation dates with diverse activities and programs, Juneteenth has come to symbolize emancipation, recognized in almost every state and the District of Columbia, incorporating African traditions with themes of freedom, hope, achievement, education, and respect for all cultures.

Juneteenth: A Virginia State Holiday and a Federal Holiday

Juneteenth City Hall Illumination 2021. Credit Carol Jean Stalun Photography for Visit AlexandriaOn Thursday June 17, 2021 President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act which established June 19th, Juneteenth, as a federal holiday. It is the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. day was created in 1983. "Great nations don't ignore their most painful moments. They don't ignore those moments in the past. They embrace them. Great nations don't walk away. We come to terms with the mistakes we made. And remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger," Biden said during remarks at the White House.

Juneteenth was celebrated as a state holiday in Virginia in 2020 by executive order. In October 2020, legislation was passed unanimously to officially declare it a permanent statewide holiday in Virginia. The City of Alexandria also recognized it as a paid holiday for City staff in 2020 and again this year in 2021.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam stated, “Juneteenth is the oldest celebration of the end of slavery in the United States,” continuing, “It’s time we elevate this, not just to celebration by and for some Virginians, but one acknowledged and celebrated by all of us.” State House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert commented that, “July 4th is the birthday of our nation, but Juneteenth is the day where it truly began to fulfill its promise of freedom for all. For the first time since enslaved Africans landed at Jamestown in 1619, the chains of bondage were finally cast off”.

As Hawaii heads closer to recognizing Juneteenth, South Dakota will be the only U.S. State that does not recognize Juneteenth as either a state holiday or observance. In 1980, Texas was the first state to declare Juneteenth a state holiday. Like Virginia, in the last year more states that already observed Juneteenth have declared it a state holiday.  

The Juneteenth Flag

Juneteenth FlagIn 1997, activist Ben Haith, founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation, worked with other collaborators, including illustrator Lisa Jeanne Graf, to create the flag design. The design was revised in 2000, and the date “June 19, 1865” was added in 2007 to commemorate Union Army Major General Gordon Granger’s announcement of freedom to the people of Texas.

The flag features a star, a burst, an arc and the colors red, white and blue. All have special meaning to the story of Juneteenth. The star represents Texas, the Lone Star State, but also represents the freedom of African Americans in all 50 states.

The burst outlining the star is inspired by a nova, or new star. It represents a new beginning for African Americans across America.

The arc across the width of flag represents a new horizon full of promise and new opportunities.

The colors red, white and blue represent the colors of the flag of the United States of America and are a reminder that those who were enslaved and their descendants were and are Americans.

Juneteenth celebrations also often feature the colors red, green and black and the Pan-African flag that was created in 1920 when Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey called for a Black liberation flag.

Juneteenth Concert with the Washington Revels Jubilee Voices

Juneteenth Concert, 2021

The Washington Revels Jubilee Voices ensemble is committed to the preservation of African-American history and traditions–presenting songs and stories of struggle and perseverance, trials and triumphs, as expressed through a cappella music, drama and dance. Inaugurated in 2010, the group now performs regularly at heritage sites throughout the Washington DC area, singing, sharing, and learning the stories of the people in those communities. This performance was in partnership with the Office of Historic Alexandria, Alexandria Black History Museum.

Juneteenth: Celebrating with the Alexandria Black History Museum

Online Exhibit 2021  

The Alexandria Black History Museum has celebrated Juneteenth for almost 30 years. The early celebrations were small festivals with a mayoral reading of the Emancipation Proclamation followed by food, vendors, performances, and children’s games and crafts. Later events featured film screenings, children’s programming, an open house featuring doll houses of historic Alexandria, and lectures by notable speakers. For the second year the 2021 celebrations were virtual so we thought we would take a trip down memory lane at some of our past celebrations together with the online exhibit  Juneteenth: Celebrating with the Alexandria Black History Museum.

Juneteenth celebrations (2021 slideshow)

    Juneteenth Video Statements

    Juneteenth Statements, 2020

    Juneteenth and the Carlton Funn Collection

    Juneteenth Carlton Funn BoardCelebrate Juneteenth by exploring local history with two collections from the Alexandria Black History Museum that are now available to view online: The Carlton Funn Collection, nearly 1,500 display boards created to teach the importance of diversity, and photographs from our Parker-Gray School Collection. Enjoy a Juneteenth themed preview of Funn, learn more about Mr. Funn and his exhibition, or simply browse both collections.

    Emancipation in the News, in the 19th Century

    Emancipation Celebration in Alexandria, September 23, 1895 Alexandria Gazette

    Emancipation celebrations were recorded in the Alexandria Gazette numerous times. Here are transcriptions of two of these articles.

    This webpage contains 1890s  articles about Alexandria Emancipation Day celebrations. These articles were written through the white media lens of the period. When referring to African Americans the term colored is used. We post these articles in the interest of historical accuracy. The terminology that was used to refer to all communities of color  has evolved over time. These articles are only shared now to give our audience a better understanding of the event and Alexandria’s racial climate. The City of Alexandria respects the history and diversity of all of its residents, employees and visitors.  

    Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser 
    September 23, 1895

    EMANCIPATION CELEBRATION. -- The colored people of this city and neighborhood turned out in force this afternoon to celebrate the anniversary of the emancipation proclamation of President Lincoln. The military and civic organizations made a fine show. The Washington Cadet Corps, Capital City Guards, National Guards and Butler Light Infantry, of Washington, were in line, as were also the Fairfax Farmers Association (mounted), and a colored zouave company of this city. There was a float containing a number of young colored girls and boys in the procession. The float broke down while on King street, but was quickly repaired. To-night the closing exercises will be held in Shiloh Church, when J. M. Langston and others will speak.

    Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser 
    September 18, 1893

    EMANCIPATION PARADE AND ANNIVERSARY. – The colored people of this city and vicinity under the auspices of the Weekly Leader and Excelsior Club, will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the emancipation proclamation on next Friday evening, September 22d. The celebration will begin with a street parade starting from odd Fellows' Hall at 6.30 p. m. It will be composed of the Industrial Guards, Laboring Men's Union, No. 1, White Shirt Club, No. 1, Emancipation Club, benevolent societies, Portner's workingmen, Jefferson Township Club, delegations from Arlington and Fairfax, Virginia Blues, of Arlington ; delegation from Hyattsville Md. ; the Butler Infantry corps, Capt, Benj. Young, of Washington, D.C. ; Spartan Club, Ladies' Auxiliary, of B. I. Corps, White Shirt Clubs, I, 2 and 3, Pioneers, Shaw Post, True Reformers and other organizations from Washington. Prof. H. Murray's Metropolitan Brass Band will head the line. The following have been appointed by Chairman Robinson as mounted marshalls. Chief, Wm., A. Carter : aides, Geo. w. Hobday, John Grisby, R. J. Preston and Thos. Shelton. The parade will be through the principal streets. The visiting military will arrive at the local depot at 6:40 p. m. Chairman Robinson received to-day Gov. McKinney's permit for the entry into the State of the Butler Infantry. At the conclusion of the parade, speaking will take place at Odd Fellows' Hall. The exercises will be opened by a chorus of young women. The edict will be read by Charles K. M. Browne, a colored attache of the British Legation. Address by Magnus L. Robinson, editor of the Alexandria Weekly Leader. Select poem, written by lawyer T. L. Jones, of Virginia, subject, "Industrial Emancipation. Addresses by others. Among the white citizens of Virginia invited are Senator Hunton and Representative E. E. Meredith. Senator Hunton has sent a letter of regret. Representative Meredith writes: "Allow me to thank you for the kind and courteous letter just received. If possible, I will be glad to accept your kind invitation.” The indications are that this emancipation occasion will reflect great credit on its managers.  

    Emancipation Celebration in Washington, D.C. April 19. 1866. From Harper's Weekly.

    Emancipation Celebration in Washington, D.C. April 19. 1866. From Harper's Weekly.