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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.
– General Orders,
of Texas, Galveston,
June 19, 1865
When Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued the above order, he had no idea that, in establishing the Union Army’s authority over the people of Texas, he was also establishing the basis for a holiday, Juneteenth (June plus 19th), today the most popular annual celebration of emancipation from slavery in the United States. By the time Granger assumed command of the Department of Texas, the Confederate capital in Richmond had fallen; the Executive to whom he referred, President Lincoln, was dead; and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was well on its way to ratification.
But Granger wasn’t just a few months late. The Emancipation Proclamation itself, ending slavery in the Confederacy (at least on paper), had taken effect 2 1/2 years before, and in the interim, close to 200,000 black men had enlisted in the fight. So, formalities aside, wasn’t it all over but the shouting?
It would be easy to think so in our world of immediate communication, but as Granger and the 1,800 bluecoats under him soon found out, news traveled slowly in Texas. Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered in Virginia, but the Army of the Trans-Mississippi had held out until late May, and even with its formal surrender on June 2, a number of ex-rebels in the region took to bushwhacking and plunder.
Defying confusion and delay, terror and violence, the newly freed black men and women of Texas, with the aid of the Freedmen’s Bureau (itself delayed from arriving until September 1865), now had a date to rally around. In one of the most inspiring grassroots efforts of the post-Civil War period, they transformed June 19 into their own annual rite, Juneteenth, beginning one year later in 1866.
The way it was explained to me, one heir to the tradition was quoted, the 19th of June wasn’t the exact day the Negro was freed. But that’s the day they told them that they was free. ... And my daddy told me that they whooped and hollered and bored holes in trees with augers and stopped it up with gun powder and light and that would be their blast for the celebration.’
The most logical candidate for commemoration of the slave’s freedom was Jan. 1. In fact, the minute Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect at the midpoint of the war, Northern black leaders like Frederick Douglass led massive celebrations in midnight jubilees.
Yet even the original Emancipation Day had its drawbacks – not only because it coincided with New Year’s Day and the initiation dates of numerous other laws, but also because the underlying proclamation, while of enormous symbolic significance, didn’t free all the slaves, only those in the Confederate states in areas liberated by Union troops, and not those in the border states in which slavery remained legal until the ratification of the 13th Amendment.
Because of its partial effects, some scholars argue that perhaps the most significant aspect of the Emancipation Proclamation was the authorization of black men to fight in the war, both because their service proved to be crucial to the North’s war effort and because it would be cited as irrefutable proof of the right of blacks to citizenship (which would be granted by the 14th Amendment).
No one in the post-Civil War generation could deny that something fundamental had changed as a result of Lincoln’s war measure, but dwelling on it was a separate matter. Douglass insisted on lighting a perpetual flame to the causes, the incidents, and the results of the late rebellion. After all, he liked to say, the legacy of black people in America could be traced like that of a wounded man through a crowd by the blood.
Hard as Douglass tried to make emancipation matter every day, Jan. 1 continued to be exalted – and increasingly weighed down by the betrayal of Reconstruction.
While national black leaders continued to debate the importance of remembering other milestone anniversaries, the freed people of Texas went about celebrating their local version of Emancipation Day. For them, Juneteenth was, from its earliest incarnation, a past that was usable as an occasion for gathering lost family members, measuring progress against freedom and inculcating rising generations with the values of self-improvement and racial uplift.
Like a boxer sparring with his rival, year after year Juneteenth was strengthened by the contest its committee members had to wage against the Jim Crow faithful of Texas, who, in the years following Reconstruction, rallied around their version of history in an effort to glorify (and whitewash) past cruelties and defeats. When whites forbade blacks from using their public spaces, black people gathered near rivers and lakes and eventually raised enough money to buy their own celebration sites.
When white leaders like Judge Lewis Fisher of Galveston likened the black freedman to a prairie colt turned into a feed horse to eat ignorantly of everything, those who celebrated Juneteenth dressed in their finest clothes, however poor, trumpeting the universal concerns of citizenship and liberty, with hero-speakers from the Reconstruction era and symbols like the Goddess of Liberty on floats and in living tableaux.
Strengthening the holiday’s chances at survival was its move across state lines – one person, one family, one carload or train ticket at a time. As Isabel Wilkerson writes in her brilliant book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, The people from Texas took Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other places they went. As it spread, the observance was also changing. This was especially true in the 1920s, Hayes Turner explains, with the Consumer Age infiltrating black society with advertisements for fancier Juneteenth getups and more elaborate displays of pomp and circumstance.
Civil rights boost
It is possible that Juneteenth would have vanished from the calendar (at least outside of Texas) had it not been for another remarkable turn of events during the same civil rights movement that had exposed many of the country’s shortcomings about race relations.
Martin Luther King Jr. had been planning a return to the site of his famous I Have a Dream speech in Washington, this time to lead a Poor People’s March emphasizing nagging class inequalities. Following his assassination, it was left to others to carry out the plan, among them his best friend, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and his widow, Coretta Scott King. When it became clear that the Poor People’s March was falling short of its goals, the organizers decided to cut it short on June 19, 1968, well aware that it was now just more than a century since the first Juneteenth celebration.
As William H. Wiggins Jr., a scholar of black folklore and cultural traditions, explained in 2009 to Smithsonian magazine: (T)hese delegates for the summer took that idea of the (Juneteenth) celebration back to their respective communities. It was, in effect, another great black migration. Since then, Wiggins added, Juneteenth has taken on a life of its own.
Responding to this new energy, in 1979 Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday. Since then, 41 other states and the District of Columbia have recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday or holiday observance.
The National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, founded and chaired by the Rev. Ronald Meyers, is committed to making Juneteenth a national holiday on a par with Flag and Patriot days. We may have gotten there in different ways and at different times, Meyers told Time magazine in 2008, but you can’t really celebrate freedom in America by just going with the Fourth of July. You can follow his organization’s activities at nationaljuneteenth.com.