But it happened more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Slave owners in Texas had refused to acknowledge the proclamation, and few Union soldiers were in the state to enforce it.
"There's so much work to do," said Dr. Francine Oputa, the retired director of the Cross Cultural and Gender Center at California State University, Fresno. "And it starts with not denying not only our painful past but our painful present."
Ahead of Juneteenth, Oputa reflected on her family and southern upbringing: "I think about my father. We're in California because my father knew he could not be the man that he had the potential to be if he stayed in the South."
Oputa's father, Dr. Hillery T. Broadous, was well known in the community as a civil rights activist, a pastor and a leader.
VIDEO: What to know about Juneteenth history, flag
During his 20s, Broadous worked at a sawmill in Warren, Arkansas. She recounted that the leader of the sawmill called all the Black men "boy." Her father decided if the management did not call him "sir" like the other men, he wasn't going to answer them. Her father was fired, and as word spread, he could not find a job.
A man later spotted him and asked if he wanted to milk cows and clean up a barn. He accepted the offer. When the man realized he found a "good worker," he asked Broadous if he wanted a job.
"My father said, 'Absolutely!' And the man said, 'Go down to the sawmill and tell them I said to hire you.' Well, because he was a vice president or something at the sawmill, they had to rehire my dad. And I said, 'So Daddy, did you start calling them sir?' And he said yes, because that's what he had to do to survive."
For Emancipation Day, Oputa also thought about her cousin Opal Lee, known as the "grandmother of Juneteenth."
Opal was just 12 years old when a mob of 500 white rioters forced her family out of their new home and set it on fire. She is now 94 years old and working tirelessly to make Juneteenth a national holiday.
Oputa said in order to make progress toward racial equity and justice, we need to acknowledge our painful past and present.
"The fact that the reality of slavery being ended was kept from people, kept from the slaves, all of that still impacts us today when you see people reluctant to take the COVID shot," Oputa said. "When you look at the incarceration rates, when you look at the rates in which children of Black African heritage are suspended from school for less serious offenses than other students."
In honor of Juneteenth, we're telling stories of what Black freedom means today, from a 94-year-old's quest for a national holiday to the fight for reparations to cultural celebrations. Click here for more stories from your city and around the country.