Celebrating Juneteenth at Congo Square – New Orleans

The 19th of June is “Nineteenth,” a holiday begun in Texas and originating from President Lincoln’s proclamation that slaves were emancipated.   He made the announcement New Year’s Day, 1863, but in Galveston, Texas, the slaves didn’t get the word until June 19, 1865, when 2000 Union troops came to town to enforce the Proclamation.    Two years late is a long time for news to spread, even in the 19th century across Texas, and rumor has it that slaveholders didn’t let them know until then.     The slaves there began celebrations with barbecues and picnics at churches, and the tradition spread.

It waned for a while with the migration of African-Americans to urban areas, but during the Civil Rights era it gained prominence again.    It’s also known as “Emancipation Day” or “Freedom Day.”  It is recognized as a state holiday or observance day in 41 states, including Louisiana.     However, we always had to do things different in New Orleans, and in many ways we started “Juneteenth” here, although Texas may take credit for it.  A local historian named Malcolm Suber,  claims the country’s first celebration of emancipation was on May 1, 1862, in the city when General Benjamin Butler brought 15,000 Union troops to occupy the city.   Slaves from the city and all surrounding areas filled the city, specifically Congo Square in Treme’, to declare a day of Jubilee.

In NOLA, the January 1 date of emancipation was observed up until the 1960s, mostly by the local church organizations.   1913 was the year, the city held a mass parade on St, Charles Avenue, down to Canal Street, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of freedom.  In 1918, the celebration drew hundreds of  colored soldiers returning from World War I to participate.   The Juneteenth “Modern Movement” started in 1994 when several Juneteenth leaders from across the country gathered at Christian Unity Baptist Church  to plan for a greater recognition of a nationalized Juneteenth. This year in the city, celebrations were held June 16 and June 17, at Congo Square, the site of slave gatherings in the 18th and 19th centuries and the first New Orleans “Juneteenth,” and also on Friday, June 15, at the African-American Museum on Governor Nicholls.   The New Orleans Juneteenth Committee puts on the Celebrating Freedom Festival, celebrating African-American cultural heritage and educating the public about the achievements of African-Americans.

Our city and state’s renowned culture would not be what it is without the African- Americans who were previously enslaved people.   Juneteenth is a good time to reflect on a sad day in our country’s past and the sacrifices so many made– and to rejoice in the future.


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