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Juneteenth and the (Brief) History of Emancipation Celebrations

Posted by on Friday, May 31, 2024 in Antiracism Diversity and Inclusion .

by Leigh Ann Gardner (MSTP Senior Grants Manager)

Advertisement in The News Scimitar (Memphis) for an excursion to Paducah, KY to celebrate Emancipation Day on August 8. July 21, 1920, pg. 7

Juneteenth is the day that celebrates the ending of slavery. On June 19, 1865, federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas and informed the enslaved there of their freedom. Although the Civil War had been over at that point for two months, news travelled slowly to Texas; indeed, even after the announcement of freedom by Union troops, some enslavers withheld the information from their workers until after harvest. The day became known as Juneteenth and was celebrated as an Emancipation Day by African Americans in Texas for many years. In June 2021, it officially became a federal holiday.

Across the United States, however, emancipation was celebrated on different days by African American communities. Some communities celebrated on January 1, the day the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. In the Midwest, emancipation was celebrated on September 22, the date of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. In Virginia, April 9 was a popular date to celebrate emancipation, as it was the day that Lee surrendered to the Union. Other places, such as Baltimore, celebrated on November 1, which was when slavery was abolished in Maryland. In Tennessee, emancipation was often celebrated on January 1 or August 8, or both, depending on the community.

Advertisement from the Nashville Tennessean, December 26, 1915, pg. 17

In Nashville, there were often celebrations on January 1. The local African American newspaper, the Nashville Globe, reported in 1911 about the celebrations on January 1 that year. Fisk University, Roger Williams University, and Walden University, all African American universities, had special guest speakers. In 1916, orator and scholar Dr. John Wesley Edward Bowen was a featured speaker at an Emancipation Celebration held at the Ryman Auditorium.

”: Advertisement from the Nashville Globe, July 17, 1907, pg. 3

August 8 was also popularly celebrated across Tennessee and Kentucky as Emancipation Day. Why August 8 was chosen is debated; some assert that the day was selected to mark the day that military governor Andrew Johnson freed his personal slaves in 1863; others assert that August 8, 1863, was when the enslaved in Kentucky and Tennessee learned about the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1905, the Nashville Banner reported that African Americans in Clarksville were celebrating Emancipation Day on August 8 in “an enthusiastic manner.” In 1908, a celebration was held on August 8 at Greenwood Park in Nashville, with a grand parade, concert, baseball, sham battle, and fireworks planned.

To learn more about how Emancipation Day was celebrated in this region and nationally, please check out these resources:
• “8th of August Tennessee’s Celebration of Emancipation,” on Black in Appalachia website. Link here.
• “Emancipation Day,” Andrew Johnson National Historic Site, National Park Service. Link here.
• “The Eighth of August” Emancipation Day in Tennessee,” Tennessee Historical Society website. Link here.
• “For many Black Kentuckians and Tennesseans, August 8 is a day to mark freedom,” NPR, August 8, 2022, All Things Considered. Link here.
• “Juneteenth,” National Museum of African American History & Culture. Link here.