Juneteenth imagines a better tomorrow—for everyone

Public Doman/Wikipedia Emancipation Day celebration in Richmond, Virginia, 1905

Celebration traced to 1865 freeing of Texas slaves 

Juneteenth, which is coming up June 19, is the newest federal holiday in the calendar. Its origins, however, date to the final weeks of the Civil War. 

The commemoration arose from the freeing of slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865, 11 weeks after the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. 

The observance helped fulfill the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by Lincoln on Sept. 22, 1862. The proclamation took effect on Jan. 1, 1863, and many Americans today believe that all enslaved people were freed. 

But that was hardly the case. The proclamation only applied to states in rebellion, meaning that slavery continued in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware. 

Lincoln’s proclamation also had to be enforced. While large parts of the South were under Federal control by 1863, Texas, the westernmost member of the Confederacy, was largely untouched. Relatively few military actions were conducted in Texas, and few Union soldiers occupied the state. 

As a result, slavery continued with little threat in Texas. Planters from elsewhere in the South migrated to the Lone Star State during the war to keep their slaves from confiscation and freedom. 

Kathryn Harris, the retired director of Library Services at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., noted the lapse in emancipation for many slaves in the South. “On the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation, there had been ‘Watch Night’ celebrations for many Blacks, with the coming of freedom,” remarked Harris, a respected authority on African American history. “But it took a while for that freedom to come to much of the nation, especially Texas.” 

By 1865, some 250,000 African Americans remained enslaved in Texas, even as the end of the war was imminent. Finally, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived at Galveston on June 19, 1865 to assume command of a Union force of 2,000 troops. 

That same day, Granger read General Order No. 3 declaring that “in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free” with “an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.”

General Order No. 3 was read at several locations throughout Galveston, an emotional series of events for the slaves of the city and the state. “I can only imagine their excitement of being free,” said Harris. 

“However, that must have brought a wide range of feelings. If you’ve never been free, as those people had not, you don’t quite know what to do. It was a completely new experience, an overwhelming one.”

Still, not all Blacks were emancipated. In some cases in Texas, owners did not inform their slaves until after the harvest, months after Granger’s declaration. Slavery throughout the United States was finally banned with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on Dec. 6, 1865. 

Public Domain/Wikipedia Band performing in Texas for Emancipation Day, 1900

The first anniversary

On the first anniversary of the Galveston declaration, free Blacks in Texas organized a celebration dubbed “Jubilee Day.” The earliest commemorations were often political rallies to inform Blacks of newly-gained voting rights. 

Jubilee Day evolved into Juneteenth festivities, though there is debate as to how the name of the holiday originated. Many believe the name is a combination of the month and day, June 19. Others theorize that the words “Jubilee Day” somehow morphed into “Juneteenth.”

Texas was the center of Juneteenth celebrations for decades. In 1867, the first event was held in Austin and became an annual event in 1872. That same year, African American organizers and clergy raised $1,000 to buy 10 acres in Houston, christened “Emancipation Park,” for Juneteenth celebrations. 

Many of the early Juneteenth festivities drew huge crowds. In Limestone County near Waco, 30 acres were purchased in 1898 to create Booker T. Washington Park, designed especially for Juneteenth festivals. As many as 30,000 attended the commemorations there. 

In the early-to-mid-20th century, the holiday continued in pockets as Blacks from Texas emigrated across the nation, taking Juneteenth with them. However, the onset of Jim Crow laws, particularly in the South, slowed the growth of Juneteenth.

“Blacks in that time were still struggling for so many things,” commented Harris. “Then, when Jim Crow popped up, along with the problems of Reconstruction, that added so many problems. And once the military was removed from the South to protect the freedmen after Reconstruction, that was really horrible.

“I think, more than anything else, that Juneteenth represented hope,” continued Harris. “Even though freedom had come, many Blacks still weren’t really free. I think the holiday represented the hope of a better tomorrow.”

The Depression added to the struggles, as Blacks scraped to find work and survive, pushing Juneteenth further to the background. But the commemorations persisted, at least in some spots. The Texas State Fair became the focus of many Juneteenth remembrances, particularly in 1936, when some 150,000 to 200,000 were present.

Juneteenth’s growing popularity

As more Blacks left Texas in the post-war era, Juneteenth continued to spread, though the holiday languished throughout much of America. Some historians, however, attribute a rebirth to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, which sparked more interest in the spirit of Juneteenth.  

That year, the storied “Poor People’s March” on Washington ended on June 19, and marchers invoked Juneteenth as they returned home. From that, large-scale celebrations arose in cities like Milwaukee and Minneapolis, which remain to this day. 

A 1978 celebration in Milwaukee attracted over 100,000 participants. Four years earlier, substantial celebrations of Juneteenth returned to Houston. Elsewhere, other major cities began Juneteenth events in the 1980s. In 1991, an arm of the Smithsonian Institution hosted a major exhibit titled “Juneteenth ’91: Freedom Revisited.”

In 1980, Texas became the first to officially establish Juneteenth as a state holiday. Sixteen years later in 1996, Minnesota became the fourth state to recognize Juneteenth. 

By 2008, half of the states had established a ceremonial holiday. In 2020, Juneteenth was recognized in all 50 states.

On June 17, 2021, Juneteenth was established as a federal holiday, the first since the creation of Martin Luther King Day in 1983. 

Critics have charged that the recent legislation for Juneteenth has been purely for political reasons. But Harris and many others believe the actions are long overdue, and that the holiday is not just for Blacks.

“It really should have been done a long time ago,” she remarked. “And Juneteenth is truly a day for everyone, not just African Americans. We talk about diversity, equity and inclusion today, but we’re really still working on the stuff that was talked about with the Emancipation, the end of the Civil War, and Juneteenth itself.  

“To me, Juneteenth is a time of reflection, a time to think about where we are, where we’ve been, and the work that’s left,” concluded Harris. “And just like in the early celebrations, it’s a time of hope.”

Tom Emery is writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He can be reached at ilcivilwar@yahoo.com

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