The Texas State Archives offers a succinct history:
Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, is the name given to emancipation day by African-Americans in Texas. On that day in 1865 Union Major General Gordon Granger read General Order #3 to the people of Galveston. General Order #3 stated “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
Large celebrations on June 19 began in 1866 and continued regularly into the early 20th century. The African-Americans treated this day like the Fourth of July and the celebrations contained similar events. In the early days, the celebration included a prayer service, speakers with inspirational messages, reading of the emancipation proclamation, stories from former slaves, food, red soda water, games, rodeos and dances.
The celebration of June 19 as emancipation day spread from Texas to the neighboring states of Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma. It has also appeared in Alabama, Florida, and California as African-American Texans migrated.
In many parts of Texas, ex-slaves purchased land, or “emancipation grounds,” for the Juneteenth gathering. Examples include: Emancipation Park in Houston, purchased in 1872; what is now Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia; and Emancipation park in East Austin.
Celebration of Juneteenth declined during World War II but revived in 1950 at the Texas State Fair Grounds in Dallas. Interest and participation fell away during the late 1950’s and 1960’s as attention focused on expansion of freedom for African-Americans. In the 1970’s Juneteenth revived in some communities. For example, in Austin the Juneteenth celebration returned in 1976 after a 25 year hiatus. House Bill no.1016 passed in the 66th legislature, regular session, declared June 19, “Emancipation Day in Texas,” a legal state holiday effective January 1, 1980. Since that time, the celebration of Juneteenth continues across the state of Texas with parades, picnics and dancing.
Texas State Library Reference Services 3/95
Celebrations across Texas started last Saturday, and will continue for another three or four days, I gather. Thought it’s an official State of Texas holiday, few people take it off. So celebrations are scheduled when they can be.
The great mystery to me is why the holiday seems to have spread so far outside Texas. Juneteenth is based on a uniquely Texas event — it involved notifying only the slaves in Texas that they had been freed. Celebrations go much farther today, even to places the Civil War didn’t touch.