Statue of the late State Rep. Al Edwards declaring Juneteenth a holiday.

While enslaved persons across the country received notice of their emancipation in 1863, it would be two years later, June 19, 1865, before that news arrived in Texas. Union troops arrived on the shores of Galveston, Texas, and told the enslaved people they were free. Now, 156 years later, the city of Galveston has made Juneteenth an official city holiday.

Before Juneteenth became a federal holiday this week, 47 states observed Juneteenth in some form, including Texas, which made it a state holiday in 1979, Galveston – which is known as the birthplace of Juneteenth – had yet to recognize as an official city holiday.

The initiative to make the day an official holiday in Galveston was started by councilman William Schuster, who is also a history teacher for the city’s school district.

“There’s been a push to make Juneteenth a federal holiday and we have the birthplace of it here and so many cities across the country are honoring it so I think it’s perfect for us to authorize it today,” said Schuster in a May city council meeting. 

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to end slavery, however, slavery continued in Texas for another two and a half years due to no large-scale fighting or and no significant presence of Union troops in the state.

As many historians have explained, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all enslaved peoples across the US because it only applied to those living in Confederate-controlled states and some territories did not enforce it. Before being taken over by the Union Army, the Lone Star State was also a safe place for citizens who were not willing to give up the institution of slavery. 

Mayor Craig Brown said the holiday is long overdue. All non-emergency city offices will be closed and city employees will receive a paid day off.

Brown also referenced the work of 94-year-old Marshall, Texas native and activist Ms. Opal Lee, who has campaigned to make Juneteenth a national holiday for years. 

“The fact is none of us are free till we’re all free. Knowing that slaves didn’t get the word for two and a half years after the emancipation, can’t you imagine how those people felt?,” Lee told the New York Times in 2020. 

“We’ve embraced Juneteenth for so many years in Galveston, we felt that it was our celebration and sometimes we just didn’t realize the importance of making that more official.”

Galveston Mayor Craig Brown

Galveston joins cities like St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Fayetteville in making the holiday official with days off for city employees. Oregon recently passed legislation to make Juneteenth an official state holiday and so has Washington state. In 1979, Texas became the first state in the nation to make Juneteenth an official state holiday, after an effort by the late State Rep. Al Edwards.

North Dakota, South Dakota, and Hawaii are the only states that don’t recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday. Last year the holiday received notable attention as it came in the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement. Corporations, including tech companies, professional sports organizations, large banks, retail stores, and even food companies, gave employees a paid day off in honor of the holiday. Many have chosen to observe the holiday forever.