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Juneteenth: Slavery and the Struggle for Emancipation

Before the English settled in North America, the Spanish and Portuguese had been enslaving the Native people of the Americas and Africans on this continent since 1493 and 1501, respectively. British North Americans initially struggled with the status of kidnapped Africans, but, within decades of their arrival, colonial governments created complex systems of oppression and enslavement. The Africans and their progeny born into slavery found ways to resist, but enslavers retaliated with stricter, more comprehensive slave codes. The Revolution inspired Northern states to gradually abolish slavery and Southern states made it easier for slaveholders to free the enslaved. This “generosity” was short lived in the South and even the federal government began passing pro-slavery laws. Enslaved people continued to fight for their freedom, but uprisings inspired more draconian laws. Slavery, sectional differences, and Northern culture pushed the North and South to war, finally ending enslavement as they knew it. Emancipation meant new challenges for Black Americans, but also gave rise to a holiday that values the struggles of the past and educates future generations about the pain and promise of the Black experience in America. Decolonizing the English language is important. The words in this timeline work to create a more accurate description of enslavement. This approach shifts the attention toward the enslaved and away from the enslavers. Some of the language included in this timeline might be considered offensive or insensitive. Words like “Negro” and “Colored” are only used when quoted from historic documents. Nowhere in this timeline does the “N-word” appear.

The Beginning of Slavery in North America

North America

The Spanish brought enslaved Africans to their American colonies more than a century before the English settled in North America. While we don’t know the legal status of the first Africans when they arrived in Virginia in 1619, it didn't take long for the British colonies to enslave Africans and their descendants. The 1640 John Punch case in Virginia officialized “servitude for life” based on race and, by 1641, the word “slave” shows up in Massachusetts law. Most damning, Virginia passed the first British North American matrilineal enslavement law in 1662.

1565 – The Spanish bring the first enslaved Africans to what would become the continental United States of America.

1617 – The first Africans arrive in Bermuda.

1619 – The First Africans arrive in Virginia. Their status is unknown.

1640 – John Punch is sentenced to “servitude for life” in Virgina.

1641 – Massachusetts enacts the first law referring explicitly to “bond-slaves.”

1662 – Children inherit their status (free/enslaved) from their mother, making slavery hereditary in Virginia.

Early Resistance

North America

The Enslaved and their allies fought back against the growth of slavery. The Quakers of Pennsylvania passed antislavery resolutions in the 1680s, later banning members from owning slaves in 1758. Virginia had the first recorded slave rebellions in 1687. Around that time, colonies like Jamaica, South Carolina, and Virginia began to pass comprehensive legislation to further restrict the rights and freedoms of the enslaved. The 1712 uprising in New York City and the 1739 Stono rebellion in South Carolina showed that enslaved people, North and South, were willing to fight for their freedom.

1688 – Quakers in Pennsylvania pass their first antislavery resolution

1712 – The New York Slave uprising rocks the city. 23 enslaved men kill nine whites. Most participants were tried, found guilty, and executed.

1738 – Spanish Florida offers freedom and land to the enslaved who escape British colonies.

1739/1749 – The Stono Rebellion in South Carolina influences the state’s new “Negro” Act of 1740.

1751 – Georgia legalizes slavery by Royal decree. It was initially banned in the colony.

1758 – Quakers ban members from owning enslaved people.


British North America

The Americans and the British “weaponized” free and enslaved Blacks in the effort to win the war, using them not only as recruits, but also as an implied threat to white colonists. At the same time, changing ideas about slavery stretched beyond the fighting. Colonies in both the North and South moved to end the importation of the enslaved, but mainly for political and economic reasons. Free and enslaved Blacks used their voices to express themselves. Unfortunately, their influence was limited to those who were willing to listen. The Revolution raised new questions about slavery, freedom, and what makes a free society.

1770 – Crispus Attucks, a free Black man, is killed during the Boston Massacre.

1773 – Phillis Wheatley’s poems are published.

1773 – Some of the enslaved in Massachusetts petition unsuccessfully for their freedom.

1773-1775 – Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Georgia prohibit the importation of the enslaved. Virginia passes legislation moving in that direction.

1775 – Nation’s first abolition society formed in Philadelphia.

1775 – General Washington bans free Blacks from enlisting in the Continental army. He reverses his decision later in the year.

1775 – Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia, offers freedom to any enslaved person who escapes a “rebel” slaveholder.

Manumission and the Spirit of '76

The United States

Some enslavers took the values and mission of the Revolution very seriously. Embracing the “spirit of ‘76,” politicians in some state legislatures created laws making it easier for owners to manumit (free) the enslaved. Virginia laws made manumission easier and South Carolina kept “private manumission” laws in place. Northern states gradually abolished slavery. The North’s sweeping reforms did not end racial prejudice, but the North had set itself on a new trajectory. Meanwhile, the “generosity” of the Southern governments would not last.

1770s-1790s – Northern states gradually manumit the enslaved.

1777 – Vermont is the first state to address slavery in its constitution.

1783 – Massachusetts gradually frees the enslaved via an interpretation of the Commonweath’s constitution.

1782 – VA's manumission law influences Southern states’ laws.

1784 – Connecticut and Rhode Island pass legislation for gradual emancipation.

1785 – New York passes a gradual emancipation law.

1804 – New Jersey is the last Northern state to pass emancipation laws. Because of the structure of these laws, there are enslaved people in 1860.

Federal Reaction and State Restrictions

The United States

The ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the subsequent state and federal laws made it clear that white Americans feared enslaved and free Blacks. In 1790, African Americans were a fifth of the population in the South and closer to 50% in places like South Carolina and parts of Virginia. State and federal governments looked for ways to control and even deport free Blacks. For the enslaved, the earlier manumission laws were weakened, and the federal government sided with enslavers in the first national fugitive slave law.

1788 – The U.S. constitution is ratified. Each enslaved person counts as 3/5 of a person for taxation and representation purposes.

1791-1804 – The Haitian Revolution terrifies the slave-holding American South. It inspires Denmark Vesey’s uprising in1822 Charleston, SC’s and strikes fear in white Americans.

1792 – 1,100 formerly enslaved Americans establish the new country of Sierra Leone.

1793 – First federal fugitive slave law passes.

1794 – George Washington signs the Slave Trade Act banning American ships from participating in the international slave trade. However, this doesn’t stop American ships from doing so up until the Civil War.

1800 – Almost 20% of the nation’s population is enslaved. The nation consists of 16 of today's 50 states.

War and Rebellion

The American South

Despite additional restrictions, free and enslaved Blacks were resilient in their pursuit of freedom; sometimes putting themselves in harm's way. Physical violence was a language that enslavers understood, and the “rebellious” demonstrated their fluency in the face of oppression. Whether official battles against the US army or meticulously planned uprisings, these events influenced "slave codes" and Black identity for decades to come. But violence wasn’t the only tool of resistance. Enslaved people across the nation found ways every day to cope with the evil institution of slavery.

1800 – Gabriel’s rebellion in Richmond, VA. Gabriel and his conspirators are captured, tried, and executed.

1811 – Spain abolishes slavery in its colonies. Puerto Rico and Cuba resisted the new laws. These colonies did not abolish slavery until 1873 and 1886, respectively.

1817-1819 – First Seminole War. Free Blacks and American Indians fight Andrew Jackson’s troops.

1822 – Denmark Vesey, a free Black carpenter, plans an uprising in Charlestown modeled after the Haitian Revolution. He is discovered, tried, and executed.

1831 – Nat Turner’s Rebellion. Nat Turner leads a semi-successful uprising in Southampton County, VA, killing dozens of white people. Turner and some of his co-conspirators are tried, convicted, and executed. This uprising sparks stricter "slave codes" all over the South.

Road to Abolition

The United States

Mainstream white culture in the North came to grips with the evils of enslavement, but not everyone supported the abolitionist cause. Orations, newspapers, and literature encouraged those who heard/read them to think about the insidious institution of slavery. Sensational tales of self-liberation captured the public imagination, but cultural influences only went so far. Politics, local and national, were pushing national unity to a breaking point. The Missouri compromise (1820) and the Compromise of 1850, both about new states joining the US as “slave” or “free,” did not fix the sectional crisis. Class issues turned into anti-Black riots in American cities, and the federal government made decisions about race and citizenship that were only undone with constitutional amendments.

1834-1835 – Major anti-Black and anti-abolition riots break out in cities like New York and Chicago.

1847 – Frederick Douglass publishes the Black newspaper, The North Star.

1849 – Henry “Box” Brown mails himself to freedom in Philadelphia, PA.

1851 – Sojourner Truth gives her famous, “Aren’t (Ain’t) I a woman?” speech in Ohio.

1857 – The Dred Scott decision, handed down by the US Supreme Court, rules that free and enslaved Blacks are not citizens of the United States.

1859 – John Brown, a white abolitionist, leads a raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry to militarize and liberate the enslaved. He is captured, tried, and executed.

1860 – Abraham Lincoln is elected president of the United States.

Civil War and Emancipation

The United States

Regional animosities exploded into violent conflict during the Civil War. Southern states went to war to protect their "right" to own others. It was clear that the conflict was about the fate of those held in bondage and the fate of slavery itself. Enslaved men in the South were conscripted into service, while the United States Colored Troops were Black units including infantry, cavalry, artillery, and engineers. Lincoln's 1863 proclamation freed the enslaved only in the “rebellious states,” but the adoption of the 13th amendment in 1865 ended slavery and involuntary servitude “...except as a punishment for crime...”

1861 – South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee secede from the Union to create the Confederacy beginning the Civil War.

1862 – Virginia conscripts enslaved men for “the cause.” South Carolina recruits Black troops.

1863 – The United States Colored Troops is formed.

1863 – President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation goes into effect.

1865 – May 9th President of the Confederate states Jefferson Davis declares an end to hostilities.

1865 – June 19th The last enslaved people in America emancipated.

1865 – The 13th Amendment is passed, and slavery is abolished.


Texas/The United States

June 19th, 1865 seemed an unlikely day for a holiday. General Gordon Granger arrived with US troops in Galveston, Texas, and issued General Order #3. The Order was simple; it brought news that the war had ended and a reminder that the enslaved were free. The following year, the newly-free people of Texas began celebrating this momentous anniversary, and Blacks in other states followed suit. The popularity of the holiday ebbed and flowed through the 20th century. Jim Crow laws, economic hardship, and world wars made Black Americans question the value of celebrating freedom in a country that continued to oppress them. Interest grew in the second half of the 20th century, as the Civil Rights movement inspired new generations of Americans. Over the last forty years, forty-seven states and D.C. have come to officially recognize Juneteenth as a holiday to celebrate.

1865 – June 19th Union Army in Galveston, Texas frees the enslaved people of Texas with General Order #3.

1865 – The 13th Amendment is ratified, ending legal enslavement in America.

1866 – June 19th First Juneteenth celebrated in Texas and the holiday quickly spreads to other states.

1868 – The 14th Amendment is ratified, granting citizenship to those formerly enslaved.

1869 – The 15th Amendment is ratified, granting the right to vote to Black men.

1870s – Black Texans purchase parks and green spaces to celebrate Juneteenth.

1900s-1970s – Juneteenth celebrations wane because of Jim Crow laws. Despite these restrictions, Juneteenth remains popular regionally.

1970s-1990s – Interest in the holiday expands as a belated result of the Civil Rights movement.

1980 – Texas recognizes Juneteenth as an official state holiday.

2020 – 47 states recognize Juneteenth in some way. Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia celebrate Juneteenth as a paid holiday.

2021 – June 17th President Biden signs into law the immediate recognition of June 19th as the national federal holiday “Juneteenth.”

Juneteenth gives all Americans an opportunity to reflect upon and celebrate a history of resistance to oppression. Of adversity and tenacity. Of resilience in the face of the impossible. The story of the Black experience in America is the story of America, which continues to wrestle with the legacy of slavery. Juneteenth provides a day to commemorate those lost to slavery, examine the struggle faced by Black Americans today and continue our unfinished work to create a more perfect union. Click Here to learn more about how Colonial Williamsburg commemorates Juneteenth.