On April 9, 1865, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, ending the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in American history, in which an estimated 498,000 soldiers died in battle. With the surrender of the South, slavery ended with the stroke of a pen.
But not quite. News of the emancipation of slaves did not reach Texas, a slave-holding state, until June 19, 1865. On that day, Union forces arrived on Galveston Island to free Texas’s slaves, who rejoiced in the streets. Since then, Juneteenth — a blend of June and 19th — has been celebrated in Texas.
It officially became a state holiday in 1980, but as of last year, only Texas recognized Juneteenth as a paid holiday for state employees.
Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order proclaiming Juneteenth an official New York holiday, on which state employees will receive a paid day off, starting next year. It was the right move.
If you think about it, June 19, 1865, was effectively the day when all Americans were at last free. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution applied to all white people, but not to all black people. Millions were held in bondage, beaten and defiled into subservience. According to the 1860 census, there were 4 million slaves in the U.S., accounting for 12.9 percent of the country’s total population of 31 million.