By Noelle Lorraine Williams,
Director, African American History Program
The New Jersey Historical Commission
This year forty-seven states including New Jersey will observe Juneteenth (also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day) as a state holiday—a holiday that commemorates when enslaved Blacks in Galveston, Texas learned that they were, in fact, freed by President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation two and half years earlier. The date was June 19, 1865. Juneteenth then is a holiday of celebration and a mournful remembrance of deep injustice and loss. It reveals the injustice of slavery and the legal repression of African American freedom, extending beyond the nineteenth century.
But we must remember that there were still enslaved Black men and women in New Jersey even after Juneteenth. Imagine, New Jersey’s death grip on slavery meant that until December 1865, six months after enslaved men, women, and children in Texas found out they were cheated of their freedom, approximately 16 African Americans were still technically enslaved in New Jersey.
But Why and How?
While there were many Black, mixed-race, and white people in New Jersey who fought against slavery, most legislators refused to condemn the institution. Profits from slaveholding organizations had built and maintained the state’s major cities and regional centers like Newark and those in Bergen County.
Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation did not free enslaved African Americans in the Northern States; it freed only those in the mostly southern "rebellious states." Two years later, New Jersey bitterly refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, the United States Constitutional Amendment that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude across the country.
Slavery’s final legal death in New Jersey occurred on January 23, 1866, when in his first official act as governor, Marcus L. Ward of Newark signed a state Constitutional Amendment that brought about an absolute end to slavery in the state. In other words, the institution of slavery in New Jersey survived for months following the declaration of freedom in Texas.
To understand this historical development, one needs to take a step back to 1804 when New Jersey passed its Gradual Abolition of Slavery law—an act that delayed the end of slavery in the state for decades. It allowed for the children of enslaved Blacks born after July 4, 1804 to be free, only after they attained the age of 21 years for women and 25 for men. Their family and everyone else near and dear to them, however, remained enslaved until they died or attained freedom by running away or waiting to be freed.
In a period when the average life expectancy was 40 years old, the 1804 law essentially took more than half of these people's lives to satisfy the economic and political demands of New Jersey enslavers.
In essence, Juneteenth, not only marks the day African Americans in Texas realized that they had been robbed of two years of their freedom, following the Emancipation Proclamation. It also commemorates all of our ancestors here in New Jersey who were the last Blacks in the North to be ensnared in that bloody institution.
The New Jersey Historical Commission (NJHC), a division of the New Jersey Department of State, is a state agency dedicated to the advancement of public knowledge and preservation of New Jersey history.