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AP Explains: Juneteenth marks day last enslaved people freed

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Flint Journal

FILE - In this June 19, 2018, file photo, Zebiyan Fields, 11, at center, drums alongside more than 20 kids at the front of the Juneteenth parade in Flint, Mich. Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, originated 155 years ago. (Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP, File)

Juneteenth commemorates when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free 155 years ago. Now, with support growing for the racial justice movement, 2020 may be remembered as the year the holiday reached a new level of recognition.

While the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the South in 1863, it wasn't enforced in many places until after the end of the Civil War two years later. Confederate soldiers surrendered in April 1865, but word didn't reach the last enslaved black people until June 19, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to Galveston, Texas.

Celebrations have typically included parades, barbecues, concerts and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation. But after massive demonstrations over George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police, there has been a seismic shift to further elevate black voices. That desire is being felt as states and cities move to make Juneteenth an official paid holiday.

Here’s a look at the holiday and its history:

BEGINNINGS

When Union troops arrived in Galveston on June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger delivered General Order No. 3, which said: “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.”

The next year, former slaves started celebrating Juneteenth in Galveston, and it eventually reached other states.

Early Juneteenth celebrations were mostly cookouts or barbecues, said Robert Widell Jr., a professor of African American history at the University of Rhode Island and author of “Birmingham and the Long Black Freedom Struggle.” They were typically large, joyous gatherings as former enslaved people prioritized trying to reunite with family.