Juneteenth is an annual commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. The name is a portmanteau[1] of June Nineteenth, in reference to June 19, 1865 when General Order No. 3 was issued by Union General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, declaring all slaves then in the State of Texas to be free. Juneteenth began as a local celebration in Galveston in 1866 and has spread from there, now having achieved national prominence.

Slavery is widely recognized as the United States’ original sin, which, like its Biblical counterpart, has repercussions to this day. As with many things that stain the reputation of a people, the origins and history of slavery in the Americas[2] are murky. The New York Times Magazine established “The 1619 Project” in August 2019 to review and reframe the history of slavery and racism in America, but the slaves who arrived in the British Colonies in 1619 weren’t the first slaves in the Americas and weren’t technically slaves.

The first people enslaved by Europeans in the Americas were natives of Puerto Rico, enslaved by Ponce de León in 1508.[3] In 1513, the first enslaved Africans were brought to the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico. The first African slaves in the continental US were brought by Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón to the Spanish colony in South Carolina in 1526.[4][5]

The British colonies followed a similar practice, first enslaving Native Americans then bringing slaves from Africa.[6]The African slaves that famously arrived in the British colony of Virginia in 1619 were taken from a Portuguese slave ship by privateers.[7] When they arrived, they were technically treated as indentured servants[8], rather than slaves,[9] though for the period of their indenture, the distinction was largely academic.

The first enslaved African in the British colonies was likely John Punch. In 1640, Punch fled his servitude before the indentured period was up, and a Virginia court sentenced him to life in servitude, effectively enslaving him.[10] The first law officially establishing slavery in the British colonies was actually passed in Massachusetts, not the South, in 1641.[11]

Regardless of when and where it started, the slavery of Africans and African descendants continued through the British colonial period and then in the United States up to the Civil War,[12] which broke out on April 12, 1861 with the shelling of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862 to take effect on January 1, 1863, initially freed no slaves. It only had effect over slaves in the Confederate territories still in rebellion, where it was simply ignored. Slaves in the Border States[13] and those in Confederate territories held by the Union army were not affected. The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, passed by the House on January 31, 1865, while the war was still going on, then later ratified by the on December 6, 1865[14] and certified by the Secretary of State on December 18, 1865, ended both slavery and involuntary servitude[15] in the United States, finally freeing the slaves in the Union, Border States, and former Confederate states, all of which were by then under Federal control.

The Civil War itself did not end with Lee’s famous surrender to Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. The last battle of the war took place a month later at Palmito Ranch, Texas, on May 13, 1865,[16] while the last military surrender took place when the CSS Shenandoah arrived in Liverpool, England on November 6, 1865. Finally, on August 20, 1866, with all of the Confederate states returned to the Union, President Andrew Johnson declared the war over.

So, if you’re going to have a day of reflection on slavery and its concomitant racism in United States history through to today, what date do you pick:

  • The start of slavery in the Americas (of Native Americans in 1508)
  • The first African slaves in the Americas (1513 in Spanish Puerto Rico)
  • The first African slaves in North America (the slaves in Spanish South Carolina in 1526, the freed slaves taken as indentured servants in 1619, or John Punch’s de facto slavery in 1640)
  • The first state to end slavery (Vermont in 1777)
  • The start of the Civil War (1861)
  • The Emancipation Proclamation (signed 1862, took effect 1863)
  • The end of the Civil War (But when did it end? It started ending with Lee’s surrender in 1865, but didn’t finish ending until the last state rejoined the Union in 1866.)
  • The official proclamation of the end of slavery in the last Confederate territory reached by Union forces (Granger’s General Order No. 3 in 1865)
  • The 13th Amendment and the end of slavery in the United States, which freed the slaves in the Border States (its passage, ratification, or certification in 1865 – or the last state to ratify it in 2013)

In the end, the specific date – and its associated holiday – doesn’t matter as much as the reflections themselves. This Juneteenth, if you’d like to take that in the direction of watching some of the best American movies from Black directors, then 24/7 Tempo’s list of The 25 Best Movies by Black Filmmakers (and where to stream them) is an excellent place to start. The list, originally compiled in 2020, then updated for 2021, includes movies from 1979 (Killer of Sheep) to 2019 (What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali), all available to stream now from a variety of streaming services.

[1] French for a traveling case that opens into two parts. In 1872, Lewis Carroll (née Charles L. Dodgson) used the term to describe his creation of nonsense words with “two meanings packed up into one word” and it is now used to describe a word that is created by blending the sound and meaning of two different words.

[2] Including North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean.

[3] The slavery of Native Americans in the Spanish colonies was abolished in 1542.

[4] Spain abolished slavery in 1811, though slavery continued in Cuba until 1886.

[5] Portuguese and Dutch colonies were not exempt from the slave trade. The Netherlands abolished the slave trade in 1814, then abolished slavery in its colonies in 1861. Portugal abolished the slave trade – north of the equator – in 1819, then abolished slavery in 1858. Freed slaves were subject to a “20-year apprenticeship,” so Portuguese slavery did not effectively end until 1878. Slavery in Brazil did not end until 1888.

[6] Of the 10.7 million enslaved Africans brought to the Americans, only 388,000 were taken to North America. Most African slaves were taken to the Caribbean and South America by the Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish.

[7] Put another way, state-sanctioned pirates.

[8] The first indentured servants were brought from Europe to the colony of Virginia in 1607. By 1619, there were around 1,000 European indentured servants in the English colonies.

[9] Under chattel slavery, a person (and offspring) are owned as property. An indentured servant must work for a set number of years (typically, four to seven) to pay off a debt (generally, the cost of transport to the Colonies plus their subsequent room and board). Life of an indentured servant was hard, but had the benefit of a pre-defined end.

[10] Two white indentured servants fled with Punch. All three were whipped, but the white men only had their servitude extended by four years (one year of servitude to their original creditor, Hugh Gwyn, followed by three years of service to the colony).

[11] The British slave trade was abolished on May 1, 1807, though people already enslaved were not emancipated until 1838. The United States split from Britain in 1776, so this only affected the remaining British colonies. The former slave owners received compensation from the British government for the loss of their property. The last of these debts was paid in full in 2015.

[12] In 1777, Vermont became the first sovereign state in the modern world to abolish slavery. (Following the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and until the ratification of the US Constitution in 1788, the US state of Vermont was an independent Republic.) The first ever was China during the Xin Dynasty when Emperor Wang Mang abolished slavery c. 10 CE. However, slavery was reinstated when the emperor was deposed in 23 CE.

[13] Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri were the “Border States”. They did not secede from the Union but did not actively support the war.

[14] Ratification only required the consent of a majority of the states. The last states to ratify the 13th Amendment were Delaware (1901), Kentucky (1976), and Mississippi (2013).

[15] Except for prisoners.

[16] The Confederate forces won.

The 25 Best Movies by Black Filmmakers

Title Year EIDR ID
1 Do the Right Thing 1989 10.5240/D9E6-2825-D315-9BE3-6E50-Y
2 O.J.: Made In America 2016 10.5240/31D0-9E74-9D0D-45D3-33A5-T
3 13th 2016 10.5240/1F9A-F4CF-3246-9AA4-F33A-P
4 Boyz n the Hood 1991 10.5240/DE3C-DBD6-E15E-816D-CDAB-5
5 Killer of Sheep 1978 10.5240/A474-AF1E-1169-AA2A-8214-C
6 Moonlight 2016 10.5240/501E-4EE6-FB6D-3007-C802-S
7 Selma 2015 10.5240/09BA-69F5-4C8E-2F62-DFB6-6
8 Get Out 2017 10.5240/E4DF-F953-7B36-D0AD-10C7-S
9 Creed 2015 10.5240/DD47-8627-C6B5-80AF-F9F7-U
10 Menace II Society 1993 10.5240/9346-79D8-34E0-124D-94E1-K
11 What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali 2019 10.5240/5421-B153-5E4F-1F59-C751-2
12 Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse 2018 10.5240/6250-1289-CDCA-6FFB-1A13-C
13 One False Move 1992 10.5240/DA0C-C6C7-49F3-2DE0-FDB8-D
14 Love Jones 1997 10.5240/8249-F907-AFF5-650C-5FCA-4
15 Mudbound 2017 10.5240/2B9E-F916-DD67-FD89-F67D-9
16 The Hate U Give 2018 10.5240/8D01-4B7A-407C-5B87-9E1D-I
17 Black Panther 2018 10.5240/7B2F-ED76-31F6-8CFB-4DB9-M
18 I Like It Like That 1994 10.5240/D1B1-2FF7-2B4A-4EAF-2295-3
19 If Beale Street Could Talk 2018 10.5240/0935-C5E6-8C9D-2DC4-A2FD-U
20 Eve’s Bayou 1997 10.5240/BEF7-7731-B06A-B55E-EA09-H
21 Daughters of the Dust 1991 10.5240/BB73-A9E1-476B-04F8-F784-V
22 Precious 2009 10.5240/061B-9A55-4951-3373-91BD-E
23 Straight Outta Compton 2015 10.5240/EC5A-9183-359E-A0F1-379C-D
24 The Great Debaters 2007 10.5240/9305-244D-85D6-8FAD-B58C-V
25 The Best Man 1999 10.5240/DC99-57C5-208A-5DA4-D389-N