The original Juneteenth took place 150 years ago, on June 19, 1865. This still popularly observed African American celebration honors the day when slaves in Texas heard they had been freed by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It is sometimes referred to as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day.
Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas, with a regiment of Union soldiers two months after the end of the Civil War, and announced the order that the slaves had been freed. This was two and a half years after the Proclamation had taken effect (January 1, 1863). It stated, “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” The information was kept from the slaves possibly so the slaveowners could reap another harvest, or because there weren’t enough Union soldiers to enforce the order until Granger arrived, but Juneteenth is the celebration of that day.
One of General Granger’s first orders of business was to read to the people of Texas, General Order Number 3, which began most significantly:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”
The reactions to this profound news ranged from pure shock to immediate jubilation. While many lingered to learn the terms of this new employer to employee relationship, many left before these offers were completely off the lips of their former masters – attesting to the varying conditions on the plantations and the realization of freedom. Even with nowhere to go, many felt that leaving the plantation would be their first grasp of freedom. North was a logical destination and for many it represented true freedom, while the desire to reach family members in neighboring states drove some into Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Settling into these new areas as free men and women brought on new realities and the challenges of establishing a heretofore non-existent status for black people in America. Recounting the memories of that great day in June of 1865 and its festivities would serve as motivation as well as a release from the growing pressures encountered in their new territory. The celebration of June 19th was coined “Juneteenth” and grew with more participation from descendants. The Juneteenth celebration was a time for community affirmation and family gathering, and often for prayer.
Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas for decades: Many former slaves and descendants would make an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.
For a long period, from the end of Reconstruction through Jim Crow, the Depression, and migration north for jobs, celebration of Juneteenth fell into decline. But with the civil rights movement, it exerted new appeal. In 1968, Juneteenth experienced a strong resurgence through the Poor Peoples March to Washington, D.C., Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s call for people of all races, creeds, economic levels and professions to come to the nation’s capital to show support for the poor. Many of these attendees returned home and initiated Juneteenth celebrations in areas previously absent such activity. In fact, two of the largest Juneteenth celebrations founded after this March are now held in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.
On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official Texas state holiday through the efforts of Albert (Al) Edwards, an African American state legislator. The successful passage of this bill marked Juneteenth as the first emancipation celebration granted official state recognition. Edwards has since actively sought to spread the observance of Juneteenth all across America.
The Juneteenth website cited below carries information on local and worldwide celebrations you may be able to attend.
Adapted from Peace History Index and http://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm.
Photo: Wikipedia (CC)