PROVIDENCE, RI – After successfully helping to make Juneteenth (June 19) a federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of formerly enslaved people in the United States, U.S. Senator Jack Reed is joining two community events today to mark the occasion.

This year marks the 157th anniversary of Juneteenth, the date when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas and announced that all enslaved people were free.

Senator Reed says Juneteenth is a day for celebration, reflection, inspiration, action, and unity.

“Juneteenth is an opportunity to celebrate freedom, educate people about our shared history – including the atrocities of slavery, and honor the resilience and rich culture of our Black community.  It is also a time to recommit ourselves to building a brighter, more just, and more inclusive future.  During the 18th century, Rhode Island was a hub of the North American slave trade.  And to this day, we continue to grapple with our state’s role in the injustice of slavery and the long-lasting legacies of enslavement and segregation.  Juneteenth is an opportunity to learn, reflect, and reckon.  As we celebrate emancipation, we must remember the pain and suffering of slavery, as well as the contributions enslaved people made, and the fact that liberty and equality didn’t begin the day slavery ended.  Juneteenth reminds us of the struggle for freedom and our shared responsibility to continue the fight against racism, injustice, discrimination, and modern human trafficking,” said Reed.

Today, Senator Reed joined the Rhode Island Slave History Medallion organization, a statewide public awareness program committed to marking historic sites connected to the history of slavery in Rhode Island, and helped unveil a Rhode Island Slave History Medallion at Casey Farm in Saunderstown.  Later this afternoon, Senator Reed will also join state leaders at the fourth annual Juneteenth Rhode Island Festival at Roger Williams Park, featuring food, music, vendors, entertainment, and an evening fireworks display.

Before Rhode Island became a state, the colonial inhabitants of the area passed an anti-slavery statute in 1652 which is widely credited with being America’s first anti-slavery law.  But the law was limited in scope and went largely unenforced.  Rhode Island outlawed slave trading in 1787, but it continued to be entangled with the trafficking of human beings until Congress passed an anti-slavery law in 1807.  Even then, Rhode Island didn’t officially ban slavery and owning human beings in its constitution until 1843.

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863 declaring the end of slavery in the confederate states that had seceded from the Union.  Notably, the proclamation applied only to enslaved people in the Confederacy, and not to those in the border states that remained loyal to the Union.  At that time, states in the Confederacy did not recognize Lincoln’s authority, so the proclamation did not take practical effect until the Union Army occupied each state and forced them to comply.  And while many believe the Civil War came to a close on April 9, 1865 when General Robert E. Lee surrendered his troops to General Ulysses S. Grant’s army at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, fighting continued in the south for many months as other confederate generals sought to continue the conflict.

On June 19, 1865, two thousand federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army, a native of New York and a West Point graduate, announced that enslaved people were free, bringing an end to slavery in the United States.

Granger issued General Orders, No. 3, proclaiming: “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. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

The last part of the order indicated that even as freedom was being expanded to enslaved people, true equality was not and the struggle for equal rights under the law would continue for generations.

Many people, particularly Black communities in Texas, have been holding annual Juneteenth celebrations since 1866. 

In 1980, Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a paid holiday.  In Rhode Island, Juneteenth has been officially recognized as a state holiday since 2012.

President Biden signed the law officially recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday on June 17, 2021.  Since June 19 falls on a Sunday this year, the federal holiday will be observed on Monday.  And this year marks the first year that U.S. stock markets, banks, and postal service will be closed in observance of the holiday.