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On Friday, June 19th, the nation will honor an event that occurred 155 years ago. It is an event that has never received the nationwide attention that it deserves. But it is a day that all freedom loving people in the United States should celebrate. And it is a day that I successfully worked to gain recognition for in Iowa as far back as 2002.

The 19th of June is popularly known as “Juneteenth.” Juneteenth traces its origin back to the close of the American Civil War, and it is based on a painful chapter of American history that too few people know. In this tumultuous year, it would do us all some good to reflect on the lessons of Juneteenth.

Most people know that President Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, issued what came to be known as the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 to free the slaves living in the Southern, Confederate States. Lincoln’s order became effective law on January 1, 1863, although it had been announced even earlier, in 1862.

In the Confederate State of Texas, however, Lincoln’s order had been ignored. The Union Army did not have the ability to enforce Lincoln’s proclamation in that part of the country. Slave owners had no interest in voluntarily freeing their slaves. As a result, the cruel and unjust institution of slavery remained intact in Texas well into 1865.

When General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant’s victorious Union Army at Appomattox in 1865, circumstances on the ground changed dramatically, however. With the Southern surrender, the Union now had the ability to dispatch significant armed forces to Texas to ensure that President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation could be enforced in that rebellious state.

It was Major General Gordon Granger who was given the responsibility to lead a Union regiment into Texas to enforce the law. General Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, and his subsequent action ensured the historic significance of that day. Not only did General Granger inform the people of Texas that the Civil War had ended, and that the Southern states had lost, but he read to them a military order, known as “General Order No. 3,” which stated unequivocally:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”

With this act, and with the Union’s demonstrated will to enforce the order, over 250,000 men and women who had remained in bondage found themselves liberated in Texas. For them, President Lincoln’s promise of freedom and “absolute equality of personal rights” had finally been delivered. It was at the time, and it remains in its annual celebration, a day of intense joy.

In 2002, as a Member of the Iowa State Senate, I proposed “An Act relating to the designation of a Juneteenth National Freedom Day” in the Iowa Senate. This historic legislation was passed unanimously by the Iowa State House and Senate, and its signature into law by Governor Vilsack made Iowa just the seventh state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday. Despite being an unofficial national holiday, “Juneteenth” is now recognized in 48 of the 50 states.

My “Juneteenth National Freedom Day” proclamation (Senate File 2273, signed into law on April 11, 2002) encouraged all state governmental entities, civic organizations, and educational institutions in Iowa to “observe the day . . . in a manner that emphasizes the meaning and importance of the Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery and to recognize and celebrate the importance of [Juneteenth] to every person who cherishes liberty and equality for all people.” 

I hope we, as a Congress and as a people, continue to recognize and to acknowledge this important piece of American history and that we also recognize the advancements we have made in the fulfillment of Lincoln’s promise since then. I am thankful for the insight and inspiration that put me in the forefront to recognize this joyous day every year in Iowa. We have 364 other days to discuss how far we have to go. May our Juneteenth National Freedom Day be forever the day we celebrate how far we have come.

Steve King

Author: Steve King