Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.
In 1865, on June 19th, U.S. soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed in Galveston with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. This was, of course, years after President Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. The Civil War continued for more than two years, until April 1865 when the Confederacy surrendered. But even after that defeat, little changed in Texas. With the June arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome resistance.
Later attempts to explain this delay in the receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years–a messenger carrying news of freedom was murdered on his way to Texas; or enslavers deliberately withheld the news to maintain the labor force; or federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest. All or none of these versions could be true. For whatever reasons, conditions in Texas remained status quo beyond what was legally ordered.
One of General Granger’s first acts was to stand in front of Ashton Villa, a mansion used as a hospital for Confederate soldiers, and from there he read to the people of Texas, General Order Number 3. (Ashton Villa pictured at left.)
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.
While General Order 3 made clear that former slaves were free, it also made clear that they would be given absolutely nothing else. Indeed, some were not given freedom at all. There are too many horrors in the narratives and writings of former slaves and their descendants telling of killings by whites in reaction to the news and others being kept for years in conditions identical to slavery.
For those who were not attacked, the reactions to this profound news ranged from pure shock to immediate jubilation. While some lingered to learn of this new employment relationship, many left before these offers could be fully made—attesting to the conditions on these plantations. Even with nowhere to go and almost no possessions, leaving plantations would be their first chance of a free life. For those who didn’t stay in Texas, northern states were a popular destination, while some left to find family members freed in other slave states. Settling into these areas as free men and women brought many challenges, including establishing a new status for Black people in Texas and the South. Fighting America’s entrenched power structure centered on white supremacy would be a long struggle that continues today.
The celebration of June 19th was coined “Juneteenth” and grew with more participation from descendants. The Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for sharing histories, for prayer, and for gathering remaining family members. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and their descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston. (At left, Juneteenth celebration photographed in 1900.)
In the early years, little interest existed outside the African American community in participation in celebrations. It was not uncommon for white local leaders to prohibit the use of public property for Juneteenth festivities. There are accounts of Juneteenth activities being interrupted and halted by white landowners demanding that their laborers return to work. Most of the festivities found themselves out in rural areas around rivers and creeks. Often church grounds were celebration sites.
Eventually, as Black Texans became land owners, they donated and dedicated land for these festivities. One of the earliest documented land purchases in the name of Juneteenth was organized by a clergyman by the name Jack Yates. His fundraising effort yielded $1000 and the purchase of Emancipation Park in Houston. (At right, Emancipation Park, Houston, Texas.)
In Mexia, the local Juneteenth organization purchased Booker T. Washington Park, which had become its local 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 once flowed through during the course of a week, making the celebration of the state’s largest. (At left, historical photo of Booker T. Washington Park, Mexia, Texas.)
In 1980 Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday. Other states followed beginning in the 1990s. Today all but three states recognize it as a state holiday, though most often as a ceremonial or commemorative holiday. It is also known as Jubilee Day and Freedom Day. (At right, 2017 Juneteenth memorial in Edinburg, Texas.)
Juneteenth is an inspiration of resilience that transformed a day of unfulfilled promise into a proud American tradition.