How did ‘Juneteenth’ get its name?

The vagueness of -teenth might be intentional, to symbolize the way liberty was experienced, piecemeal, on different days as the news spread.


How did Juneteenth get its name? Last year, it became the newest federal holiday in the United States, although it has been observed in Texas and nearby states since 1866. As the Monitor reported, Juneteenth commemorates the day that enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, finally heard the news of their liberation.

President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, declaring that “all persons held as slaves” were henceforth free. (The proclamation actually freed enslaved people in much of the Confederacy, including Texas. It did not free those enslaved in Union states or border states. The 13th Amendment, ratified on Dec. 18, 1865, abolished slavery throughout in the U.S.) 

It took until the summer of 1865 for news of the proclamation, and Union troops, to arrive in Texas. Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger gave the tidings on June 19, to much rejoicing. This day quickly became an unofficial, then official, state holiday.  

Juneteenth is an interesting word, as it looks like one of the ordinal numbers, which designate a position in a series, such as eighth or 15th. (Cardinal numbers like 8 refer to quantity.) Here, though, the -teenth ending is stuck on the name of a month. According to historian Annette Gordon-Reed, the word is exactly what it looks like: a contraction of the month and day (June 19) when General Granger made his announcement. Historian Leslie Wilson hypothesizes that the vagueness of -teenth might be intentional, to symbolize the way liberty was experienced, piecemeal, on different days as the news spread. 

Though the holiday was immediately popular, the name Juneteenth wasn’t settled on for decades. An 1888 El Paso newspaper called it a “jubilee,” which, since the 14th century has come to mean “exultant joy ... public rejoicing.” Originally, though, the jubilee was the culmination of the 50-year cycle described in Leviticus, a year of “emancipation and restoration,” as Merriam-Webster puts it, when enslaved people would be set free. 

Other names for the holiday were quite formal. An 1898 Brenham, Texas, paper reported on the Manumission Anniversary, while other cities marked Emancipation Day. Both of these words come from the same Latin root – manus (“hand”) signifying the authority of a father or a master. To manumit (manus + mittere) literally means “to release from the hand” – in Roman times manumittere referred to setting an enslaved person free from bondage. Manumission was used when the head of the family freed one of his enslaved people. Emancipation was when the head of the family freed one of his own adult children or his wife. They weren’t slaves, exactly, but they weren’t totally independent, either, being under his legal control. 

Though all these names were used for the holiday in the past, Juneteenth is unique, invented by formerly enslaved Texans celebrating their newfound freedom. Happy Juneteenth!

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