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June 19th Marks a Joyous, Yet Solemn, Occasion


June 19th, is America's second Independence Day. There's the biggie -- the July 4th celebration of the nation's founding. But five states and 205 U.S. cities have also proclaimed June 19th an independence holiday. "Juneteenth," as it is called, commemorates the official and final end of slavery for about four million African Americans 141 years ago.

Two years into the U.S. Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves in the southern Confederacy free. But it had little practical effect, since the war was raging, and the Union was in no position to enforce it. Even ten weeks after the southern army surrendered in April 1865, defiant slaveholders still held human chattel in Texas, the most remote of the Confederate states. But on June 19th, 1865, Union general Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, then the biggest city in Texas, and announced that the last southern slaves were henceforth free.

For years thereafter, many southern blacks took off work on June 19th to gather for home-cooked meals, prayer, storytelling, re-enactments of General Granger's proclamation, and lots of singing.

Juneteenth lost its luster in the 1960s. With the passage of civil-rights legislation, many blacks began to feel more a part of the American mainstream. Few history textbooks mentioned Juneteenth, and most African Americans rarely observed it.

But awareness increased in 1979, when Texas passed a bill to create the nation's first official, paid Juneteenth holiday, saluting African-American culture. Nowadays, there are local, state, and national Juneteenth celebrations, historical dramas, tours and even a few monuments that commemorate Juneteenth -- America's Second Independence Day.

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