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Juneteenth: A closer look at Kentucky's history surrounding the new federal holiday

Posted at 4:01 PM, Jun 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-18 20:19:51-04

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — Celebrations will take place on Saturday, but Friday marks the United States' first time observing Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

The country's newest holiday celebrates the end of slavery.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation took effect. It declared "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free." However, it took time for Union troops to travel to the confederate states and enforce the proclamation.

On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger led troops to Galveston, Texas, and shared the news that all slaves were free. That day became known as Juneteenth.

Granger's action in Texas is considered the end of slavery in America. However, scholars say Kentucky - where Granger is buried - still participated in slavery until the 13th Amendment was ratified in December 1865.

Gordon Granger grave.jpg

"Kentucky is an anomaly," explains Dr. George Wright, the Vice President for Institutional Diversity at the University of Kentucky. "Slavery ended last in Kentucky, even after Juneteenth."

Wright said the reason for that is because the Emancipation Proclamation was limited.

"Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation applies to the slaves in the rebelling states," said Wright.

Kentucky was a slave state, but it was not on the rebelling side. Historians say it was a border state during the Civil War and it was crucial for the Union's victory.

"Lincoln, of course, was very famous for the quotes that he often said. He said, 'I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky,'" said Wright. "He said if we lose Kentucky, it's the same as losing the whole ball game."

So, slavery officially came to an end in Kentucky when the 13th Amendment was ratified - almost six months after Juneteenth. However, many scholars say Juneteenth is a good date to use as the official end of slavery in the United States.

"For African Americans, Juneteenth takes on a meaning even greater than the 4th of July," said Wright. "It came to symbolize the complete end of slavery - a day of celebrations. So that's what Juneteenth meant."

Now that day of celebration is now observed by the entire country.