Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the ending of slavery. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19TH that a band of union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston Island, Texas with the news that the Civil War had ended, and was won by the Union North forces, and that all the enslave people in the states in rebellion against the union were henceforth, and forever free from a lifetime of inhumane servitude.
Note that this was two and half years after President Abraham Lincoln‘s Emancipation Proclamation—which became official January 1, 1863—went into effect. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. However, with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate forces in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence the strength behind the Proclamation and overcome resistance from the slave holders.
Many attempts have been made at trying to explain this travesty and ludicrous delay of two and a half years in the receipt of this important news have resulted in many versions that have been passed down through the years. One often told story is of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another is that the news was deliberately withheld by the slave masters to maintain the enslaved labor force on the plantations to get more work out of the enslaved, illegally, since the enslaves were freed by the Proclamation. The greediness of the slave holders in this regard would not have been so far fetched. Still another is that the federal troops actually allowed the slave masters to reap the benefits of one last cotton crop harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Proclamation. All or none of these guesses may be true. Whatever the reasons, conditions in Texas remained the same for the enslaves even after slavery was abolished.
GENERAL ORDER NUMBER 3
Upon landing on the shores of Galveston Island, Gen. Granger read aloud the Proclamation to the people of Texas, General Order Number 3, which began significantly with the words:
“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 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, or moving out West, to California, Nevada and Arizona. Settling into these new areas as free women and men brought on new realities and the challenges of establishing a heretofore nonexistent status for black people in America.
The celebration of June 19TH was coined “Juneteenth” because of Texas enslaves emancipation on June 19, 1865, and it grew with more participation from the survivors of the cruelty and hardship of slavery. This was a time for descendants remaining family members to gather together and reassure each other and pray for each others continued safety and advancement in the new life they were all undertaking.
Juneteenth continued to be a highly revered holiday in Texas many decades later, with many former enslaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston Island on Juneteenth.
The festivities and food of Juneteenth involve a range of acivities that still continue to this day:
-Guest speakers which involve community elders who recount the past
-Barbeque (meats such as lamb, pork and beef, though not available everyday, were brought)
-And the ever ubiquitous strawberry-red soda (“Big Red” soda)
Dress was very important to the ex-enslaves. Never having much clothing to wear during slavery, and usually given once a year, one pair of shoes, pants, a shirt, or a dress, often hand-me-downs from the slave master and mistress, enslaves put much thought into their costumes when they celebrated this most important holiday. According to some historical recordings, the newly emancipated enslaves during the initial emancipation celebrations, tossed their ragged garments into the creeks and rivers and adorned themselves with clothing taken from the previous masters.
Finding a place to celebrate was not easy for the celebrants. Sometimes they were barred from the use of public property for their festivities, often finding themselves far out in rural areas near creeks, rivers and lakes. They could avail themselves of fishing, picnics, horseback riding, and games of horseshoes. Eventually some black people became land owners, and were able to donate land dedicated for the festivities. Often the church grounds was the site for the festivities. A true Juneteenth celebration left the celebrants very well satified and with enough conversation to last until the next year.
One of the earlier recorded land purchases for Juneteenth celebrations was by a Rev. Jack Yates. This fund-raising event raised $1,000 and the purchase of Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas. Houston’s Emancipation Park, established in 1872, became the center of Juneteenth celebrations in that city. The celebration was particularly meaningful because freedpeople bought this park in 1872 and gave it to the city. In Mexia, Texas, the local Juneteenth organization purchased Booker T. Washington Park, which became the Juneteenth celebration site in 1898. There were accounts of white landowners demanding that workers return to work and not enjoy their hard-earned day of celebration, but, most whites allowed their workers to relax on this most important day off, and some even made donations of food and money.
Over the years, Juneteenth celebrations began to decline in the early 1900s. In classrooms textbooks gave more emphasis on Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 as the official date abolishing slavery and little or nothing of the unique impact of General Granger’s arrival on June 19TH was taught or emphasized in textbooks. With the Depression forcing many people into the cities to work, rural celebrations of Juneteenth declined even more. In the cities, employers were less enthusiastic in allowing their employees time off to celebrate, therefore, unless Juneteenth fell on a weekend, there was little chance to take time off from work to celebrate.
With the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, a resurgence in Juneteenth occurred due from pride many black youths acquired in the struggle for racial equality, linking the struggles of the civil rights to the struggles of their ancestors. Juneteenth, which was a unique Texan holiday began to take root all across the country due to native Texans moving out of the state and taking many of the aspects of the holiday with them. Many people unfamiliar with the history of Juneteenth began to learn of this fascinating holiday, and all across America, many black communities embraced Juneteenth and began to claim it as their own. All across black America, from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, and even as far away in Japan, with the holiday celebrated by U.S servicemen on military bases, Juneteenth has become the holiday of ALL black Americans.
In June 1974, Houston Mayor Fred Hofheinz issued a proclamation making June 19 “Emancipation Proclamation Day in Houston.”
That same year Rev. C. Anderson Davis began the annual Juneteenth Parade in downtown Houston. On June 13, 1979Juneteenth became the official state holiday through the tireless efforts of Rep. Al Edwards, a black American state legislator, with the successful passage of a bill he had introduced into the Texas legislature, as the first emancipation petition granted official state recognition. No other state before Texas had done that, and this event in and of itself was momentous.
Today, Juneteenth continues to grow in communities and organizations around the country. In recent years a number of National Juneteenth Organizations have taken their place alongside of older organizations, all with the desire to promote the knowledge and appreciation of this most unique holiday of black American history. Even of more greater importance would be the passage of Juneteenth as a federal holiday. If such a gesture was done, it would be the start of getting on the road of reconciliation between black America and white America. It will not remove many of the vestiges and legacies of slavery, but, it is worth a start.
Juneteenth celebrates the struggles of black Americans to free themselves from bondage, it celebrates and encourages self-development, respect for those ancestors who came before, and to acknowledge and never to forget their sufferings, for young people to never forget their roots, and to take pride in their place in this society, this country, this world, as well as to develop a respect for other people’s cultures.
Even though Juneteenth has taken on a national and even global scale of celebration, the events of June 19, 1865 in Texas should not be forgotten, for all the historic beginnings of this beloved holiday go back to the coastal beach when a Union general landed 142 years ago to give the order that all the enslaves of Texas were henceforth and forever free.
Juneteenth may be two and a half years older than the official Emancipation Proclamation delivery, and, in many people’s minds, it may be two and a half years behind the time of the original proclamation, but, Juneteenth holds a very special place in this Texans heart.
May all the black ancestors who came before me who suffered through days of sorrow, the many black ancestors who refused to give up hope of the day of eventually receiving their freedom, never have their memory forgotten.
Juneteenth started out as a Texas holiday.
It is now a national holiday for not only black Americans, but, it is also a holiday for all Americans and many people around the world.
I’m sure that my black ancestors would be so happy to know of that.
They did not suffer in vain.
May I always make them proud of me in all that I endeavor.
Happy Juneteenth to everyone!
Francis E. Abernathy, Patrick B. Mullen and Alan B. Govenar, eds., Juneteenth Texas: Essays In African-American Folklore (1996). See also www.griotcalendar.org
6 responses to “JUNETEENTH”
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Before I walked out the door today, I grabbed a cowry shell necklace that I’d bought at a Juneteenth festival several years ago, but I didn’t even realize that today was Juneteenth until this moment. I guess my ancestors put this necklace into my hand for a reason today. 🙂
My boy from grad school was from Texas and every Juneteenth hed take off from work, volunteering, whatever, cause that was HIS day to do as he pleased. As a result, he generaly invited a lot of friends over, and he spent the majority of the day drinking and talking shit. Man, I wonder if he still parties??
Juneteenth is America’s 2nd Independence Day. Today, 25 states now recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or state holiday observance.
Together we will see Juneteenth become a National Holiday in America!
Rev. Ronald V. Myers, Sr., M.D.
National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF)
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