Visions of Freedom

From the National Museum of African American History and Culture

During Reconstruction, formerly enslaved African Americans embraced freedom by establishing families, creating communities, and building new institutions. They sought access to education and land ownership, believing these were important steps to independence. Above all, they wanted the opportunity to determine their own lives, free from white interference. To secure their vision of freedom, African Americans demanded the same privileges and protections enjoyed by white citizens, including the right to vote.

Family

African Americans reunited their families torn apart by slavery. Learn how they established their own households and why they created new names as free people.

Land and Labor

Explore the ways African Americans sought to own land and demanded fair wages for their labor during Reconstruction. Learn where they migrated to enjoy their freedom.

Community

African Americans created businesses, religious, educational, and social institutions during Reconstruction. Learn how these institutions sustained communities.

Democracy

Explore the ways African Americans protected their civil rights. Learn how they demanded the right to vote and resisted second-class citizenship.


The Historical Legacy of Juneteenth

On “Freedom’s Eve,” or the eve of January 1, 1863, the first Watch Night services took place. On that night, enslaved and free African Americans gathered in churches and private homes all across the country awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect. At the stroke of midnight, prayers were answered as all enslaved people in Confederate States were declared legally free. Union soldiers, many of whom were black, marched onto plantations and across cities in the south reading small copies of the Emancipation Proclamation spreading the news of freedom in Confederate States. Only through the Thirteenth Amendment did emancipation end slavery throughout the United States.

But not everyone in Confederate territory would immediately be free. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation was made effective in 1863, it could not be implemented in places still under Confederate control. As a result, in the westernmost Confederate state of Texas, enslaved people would not be free until much later. Freedom finally came on June 19, 1865, when some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. The army announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved black people in the state, were free by executive decree. This day came to be known as “Juneteenth,” by the newly freed people in Texas. 

Emancipation Day celebration, June 19, 1900 held in “East Woods” on East 24th Street in Austin. Credit: Austin History Center.

This day came to be known as Juneteenth, now officially a federal holiday. Juneteenth is a time to celebrate, gather as a family, reflect on the past and look to the future.

Press Play on History

Connect songs to themes of the historical experience of African Americans and Juneteenth and create a playlist through this Learning Lab activity.

Connecting the Historic to Now

Scholars discuss the historical and current political significance of the holiday.

Cause for Celebration

This 1925 film, recorded by the Rev. Solomon Sir Jones, captures a Juneteenth celebration in Beaumont, Texas. Learn more about Reconstruction, rights and retaliation by visiting our Searchable Museum.

June 19th, 2024

Your Juneteenth Reading List

Cover of A Black Women's History of the United States

A BLACK WOMEN’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES
Daina Berry and Kali Gross
This book is a compact, exceptionally diverse introduction to the history of Black women, from the first African woman who arrived in America to the women of today.

JUNETEENTH JAMBOREE
By Carole Boston Weatherford
Illustrated by Yvonne Buchanan

It’s a fine day in June. Cassandra’s family has just moved from the city back to her parents’ hometown in Texas. Cassie likes her new house, and her new school is okay, but Texas doesn’t quite feel like home yet.

Cover ofSTONY THE ROAD RECONSTRUCTION, WHITE SUPREMACY, AND THE RISE OF JIM CROW

STONY THE ROAD: RECONSTRUCTION, WHITE SUPREMACY,
AND THE RISE OF JIM CROW
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

A social and intellectual history of the time between Reconstruction and
the rise of the Jim Crow period of American History.

Cover of On Juneteenth

ON JUNETEENTH
Annette Gordon-Reed

Texas native Gordon-Reed weaves together her American and family
history into a historian’s view of the country’s long road to Juneteenth,
from its origins in Texas to Reconstruction, through Jim Crow and beyond.

Add to your Watch-List

Got My Mind on Freedom – Odetta
NMAAHC Oral History Specialist Kelly Navies talks about the history of Juneteenth.

A Colored Girl Speaks

The Shadow of Suns, from the podcast “A Colored Speaks Meditations on Race and Other Magical Things.” Essay by Andrea Hunter, Narrated by Tiera Chiama Moore.

My elders had seen everything there was to fear, and they knew that the power that resided in man was not the power of God. Because of them, I know what wisdom means and the gentleness of humility, and I know what only a communion with the dead can tell.