The history of Juneteenth

Juneteenth or June 19, 1865, is considered the date when the last slaves in America were freed. Although the rumors of freedom were widespread prior to this, actual emancipation did not come until General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas and issued General Order No. 3, on June 19, almost two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. 

General Order Number 3

One of General Granger’s first orders of business was to read to the people of Texas, General Order Number 3, which began with:

“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.” 

President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, notifying the states in rebellion against the Union that if they did not cease their rebellion and return to the Union by January 1, 1863, he would declare their slaves forever free. Neeedless to say, the proclamation was ignored by those states that seceded from the Union. Futhermore, the proclamation did not apply to those slave-holding states that did not rebel against the Union. As a result about 8,000,000 slaves were unaffected by the provisions of the proclamation. It would take a civil war to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to formally outlaw slavery in the United States.

During the Civil War, Texas did not experience any significant invasion by Union forces. Although the Union army made several attempts to invade Texas, they were thwarted by Confederate troops. As a result, slavery in Texas continued to thrive. In fact, because slavery in Texas experienced such a minor interruption in its operation, many slave owners from other slave-holding states brought their slaves to Texas to wait out the war. News of the emancipation was suppressed due to the overwhelming influence of the slave owners.

The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on Texas due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order.  However, with the surrender of General Lee in April 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.

In attempts to explain the two and a half year delay in receiving this important news, several versions have been handed down through the years. One often told story is that a messenger sent to deliver the news of freedom was murdered on his way to Texas.  Another, more often told version, is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton-harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.  Still another, is that the news was deliberately withheld by the slave masters to maintain the labor foce on their plantations.

Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States 

In the early years, little interest existed outside the Black community in participation in the celebrations.  In some cases, there was outwardly exhibited resistance by barring the use of public property for the festivities.  Most found themselves in rural areas around rivers and creeks that could provide additional activities such as fishing, horseback riding and barbecues.  The church grounds were sites for many activities.

As Blacks became landowners, land was donated and dedicated for these Juneteenth festivities.  One of the earliest documented land purchases in the name of Juneteenth was organized by Rev. Jake Yates.  This fund-raising effort yielded $1,000 and the purchase of Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas.  The local Juneteenth organization in Mexia purchased Booker T. Washington Park, which had become the Juneteenth celebration site in 1898. For decades, these annual celebrations flourished, growing continuously with each passing year.  In Booker T. Washington Park, as many as 20,000 Blacks once flowed through during the course of a week, making the celebration on of the state’s largest.

In the early 1900s, economic and cultural forces caused a decline in Juneteenth activities.  Classroom and textbook education, in lieu of traditional home and family-taught practices,  stifled the interest of the youth due to less emphasis and detail on the activities of the former slaves.

The Depression forced many people off the farms and into the cities to find work, and in these urban areas of environment, employers were less eager to grant leave from work to celebrate Juneteenth. July 4th was the already established Independence holiday and patriotism steered more toward this celebration. 

Blacks do celebrate the Fourth of July in honor of American Independence Day, but history reminds us that Blacks were still enslaved when the United States obtained its independence.

The Civil Rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s yielded both positive and negative results for the Juneteenth celebrations. While it pulled many of the African American youth away and into the struggle for racial equality, many linked these struggles to the historical struggles of their ancestors. Again in 1968, Juneteenth received another strong resurgence through 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 Washington to show support for the poor. Many of the attendees returned home and initiated Juneteenth celebrations in areas previously absent of 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 state holiday in Texas, through the efforts of Al Edwards, a Black state legislator.  The successful passage of this bill marked Juneteenth as the first emancipation celebration granted official state recognition.

In recent years, a number of local and national Juneteenth organizations have begun to take their place along side the older organizations, with the mission of promoting and cultivating knowledge and appreciation of Black history and culture.

Today, Juneteenth celebrates Black freedom and achievement, while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures, as it takes on a more national and global perspective. It is celebrated annually, on or around June 19, in more than 200 cities in the United States. Texas (and Oklahoma) is the only state that has made Juneteenth a legal holiday. Some cities sponsor week-long celebrations, culminating on June 19, while others hold shorter celebrations.    

Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation, is celebrated on the 19th of June to solemnize the dissolution of slavery in 1865 in Texas. It is an annual holiday in forty-two states of the United States.

Juneteenth festivals honor African American heritage. The day is marked with family gatherings, celebrations, picnics and guest speakers. People of all races and religions join hands to commemorate that period in history, which molded and influence their society even today.

It symbolizes the end of slavery. Juneteenth has come to symbolize for many African-Americans what the fourth of July symbolizes for all Americans — freedom. It serves as a historical milestone reminding Americans of the triumph of the human spirit over the cruelty of slavery. 

It honors those African-Americans ancestors who survived the inhumane institution of bondage, as well as demonstrating pride in the marvelous legacy of resistance and perseverance they left us. 

All of the roots tie back to this soil from which a national day of pride is continuously growing!!!