On Juneteenth

Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, formerly enslaved, engraving by Barry Moser (Pennyroyal Press, 2020)

Slavery was formerly abolished (again) in New Mexico by a Congressional act on June 19, 1862, which prohibited slavery in current and future US territories. This was prior to the more famous Emancipation Proclamation (issued September 22, 1862, enacted January 1, 1863), which was supposed to free the enslaved in ten Confederate states. And it was three years to the day before the first Juneteenth, June 19, 1865, when news of the Proclamation reached enslaved people in Galveston, Texas.

While in theory the 13th Amendment of 1865 and the Anti-Peonage Act of 1867 (which names New Mexico specifically) effectively made slavery and servitude illegal in the US, social and legal systems of discrimination, such as the Jim Crow laws, continued to oppress African Americans (and many other historically marginalized people). These systems only began to shift in response to the successes of the Civil Rights movements and the Great Society legislation of the 1960s.

New Mexico’s antislavery history is complex and centuries long. As part of the Spanish colonial empire, slavery was abolished here in 1512 and again in 1543, although African and Indigenous people continued to be widely enslaved throughout the Americas. In 1829, Mexico abolished slavery in its states and territories, including New Mexico (but excluding Texas). American occupation reopened these debates.

Historic Emancipation Day and Juneteenth celebrations have taken place in Roswell, Clovis, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque since at least the 1890s and include music, food, games, sports, and pageantry with attendees dressed in their finest clothes. Juneteenth has been a New Mexico state holiday since 2006, and it helps make visible our African American communities while celebrating the end of one phase of a significant part of our national history.

For more on this holiday and African American history in New Mexico, check out this 2019 episode from KUNM’s “Let’s Talk New Mexico.”