The History Of Juneteenth And Kentucky

Jun 16, 2021 at 10:07 am
Jermaine Fowler.
Jermaine Fowler.

Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, has been celebrated by Black people in America since the 1860s. But in recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in America’s second freedom day. 

Perhaps, after so many murders of those like Breonna Taylor, national protests have encouraged new groups to engage with the history of Black freedom. Companies such as Tesla, Twitter, Target, Nike and Spotify recently made Juneteenth a paid company holiday, but the price for freedom cannot be reduced to a paid day off. 

Juneteenth started in Galveston, Texas, where thousands of enslaved people were not told of freedom until June 19, 1865. Then, Union General Gordon Granger issued an order officially freeing them. This celebration served as the basis of June 19 — or Juneteenth — a holiday that has become the most significant freedom celebration in the U.S. 

Kentucky has some interesting connections to this national celebration. Here I want to share a few of them.

Abraham Lincoln, “The Great Emancipator,” was born in a log cabin in Kentucky. He grew to become the 16th U.S. president. Most of us learn that his Emancipation Proclamation, signed by his indelible ink on Jan. 1, 1863, legally ended slavery. This is a half-truth. A half-truth is a whole lie. Yes, the Kentucky-born Lincoln played a role, but Black people freed themselves.   

What did happen and what had been happening were various forms of emancipation since the beginning of enslavement when Black people jumped off slave ships into frigid watery ocean tombs. When they ran on foot, paddled by canoe, snuck by train, rode by wagon, galloped on horses, mailed themselves or transported themselves in other ways to freedom. Those who joined the abolitionist cause. Those who organized and mobilized and used their voices to advocate for their liberation.

In Kentucky, they risked being swept under by the wild undercurrent of the Ohio River. They risked drowning by swimming across to freedom — any of this, rather than be swept back into the undercurrent of enslavement. Kentucky has a shameful history when it comes to Black liberation. The Civil War ended in April 1865, but the reprehensible bondage of slavery did not end for some 225,000 Kentucky enslaved people until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on Dec. 18, 1865. Kentucky didn’t even go on record against slavery until 1976. 

So on Juneteenth, I think about how the struggle continues, but I also pause to celebrate joy in the struggle. How Black people built their power from no power. There is joy in that. Despite the difficulties, we can never undervalue the impact and the importance of freedom. Facing the greatest challenges, the men, women and children who emerged from slavery built schools, rebuilt their families and built thriving communities.

So, as we celebrate Juneteenth, remember, it is not just a moment of entertainment, it is a necessary moment of observation for Kentucky. A moment to recognize that our government and our nation have never fully acknowledged the atrocity of slavery and its continued legacy. It hasn’t accepted the impact this institution has had on Kentucky and continues to have on Kentucky. So Juneteenth is not only a celebration. It is a reminder of that. It will always be a reminder until we reckon with this haunting part of our past.

Jermaine Fowler is the founder of The Humanity Archive, a podcast and educational website committed to telling the untold stories of history. You can find his work at and tune in to The Humanity Archive podcast on Apple, Spotify or anywhere else you listen.