“Juneteenth,” June 19, is the oldest known celebration of the ending of slavery in the U.S. On June 19, 1865, Union General Granger and his regiment arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation two and a half years after it was issued.
General Granger read his Order Number 3 to the people of Texas informing them that “all enslaved Africans were free with absolute equality of rights” and “the connection heretofore between former masters and slaves becomes that between employer and free laborer.” Hearing this great news, many Blacks were jubilant and left the plantations to find their family members in neighboring states and to seek out economic opportunities. Having only the clothes they wore, their plight was enormous.
Texas was admitted to the Union in 1845 as a slave state, increasing the political and economic power of slaveholders. In December 1864, Texas joined ten other southern states to form the Confederate States of America. During the Civil War many slave owners from other slaveholding states brought their slaves to Texas to wait out the war.
News of the emancipation was suppressed due to the power and influence of the slaveholders. During the Civil War, Texas did not experience any significant influx of Union troops. The Emancipation Proclamation, which had become official on January 1, 1863, had little impact on Texas because of the minimal number of Union troops there to enforce it.
Frederick Douglass voiced the sentiments of all African Americans when he called for “the complete and universal abolition of the whole slave system as well as equal suffrage and all other rights.”
The Freedmen’s Bureau was founded by Congress in March 1865 to provide relief services to former slaves. Schools and churches became centers of the newly freed communities. Former slaves petitioned for land and looked forward to participating in American society as free citizens. Many even changed their names and legalized their marriages. The vision of freedom for Black people in Texas was just as strong and vivid as anywhere else in the country. Freed men and women acquired every available primer, seeking their right to literacy.
But the vision of freedom for African Americans in Texas was soon crushed, when the North abandoned them to the will of southern whites who used violence, racial discrimination and Jim Crow laws to institute 100 years of brutal oppression. Despite the Freedman’s Bureau, freed Blacks were left to fend for themselves and the majority ended up in abject poverty. A major newspaper in Texas, The Harrison Flag, denounced the sale of land to Blacks as “treason.” Soon afterwards, the Texas Homestead Act granted 160 acres of free land to white persons only. The Texas legislature passed a new set of Black Codes that reversed the limited gains African Americans had made. The sharecropping system that emerged in Texas and the South kept Blacks from starving, but was not very different from the life they had lived under slavery.
But, the dream of freedom and full citizenship for African Americans never died. It was nurtured in the Black church and “Juneteenth” continued to be celebrated, becoming a state holiday in Texas in 1980. It is also a state holiday in six other states and will be celebrated in over 200 U.S. cities.
The National Juneteenth Christian Leadership Council (NJCLC) is hosting the first Juneteenth Black Holocaust Memorial Service at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., from 1 to 5 p.m., on Saturday, June 15. The theme of the memorial service, known as “MAAFA” (Kiswahili term for “disaster”) is “A Time to Heal, A Time to Pray.” The organization has asked President Bush to establish “Juneteenth” as a National Day of Reconciliation and Healing From the Legacy of Slavery.
Rosita Johnson is a member of the People’s Weekly World editorial board. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org