It may be famous as a holiday established by the federal government to remember one man and one era, but well over a century before Martin Luther King Day was made official as a time to reflect on the strides of the Civil Rights Movement, there was one holiday which struggled its way up from the grassroots and before the eyes of the nation, a direct legacy created by the very people which June 19th now celebrates.
“Juneteenth,” as it has always been called began as a spontaneous gesture of joyous jubilee among enslaved African-Americans in the Texas port city of Galveston when they first learned that they had truly been freed, but it is a stark reminder to all people of the darkest chapter of national life and that only with freedom can any person take control of their own destiny.
Texas might now be thought of as Southwestern state but during the Civil War, it was decidedly a Confederate state and southern in culture. Slaves were legally held there. On Galveston island, the Confederate Army made its headquarters in new, three-story home of Colonel James Moreau Brown, dubbed Ashton Villa for his wife’s family. It was a strong structure, one of the first brick homes in Texas. It was built on slave labor.
In the first Battle of Galveston of October 1862, the Union Army seized the city and made Ashton Villa its headquarters. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring freedom for all slaves held in those states considered to be still “in rebellion” by that day (he had issued a preliminary proclamation three months earlier, setting the first of the year as the deadline).
That very same day, in the most western of the Confederate states, however, rebel forces regained control of Galveston, Texas and again made Ashton Villa their headquarters.
As was true in the other southern states “in rebellion” white slave-owners in Texas ignored the President’s proclamation not only all through the rest of the Civil War but even three months after the Confederacy surrendered to the Union.
As the furthest of the former Confederate state, it was not until June 18, 1865 that some 2,000 federal troops, led by Union General Gordon Granger, finally arrived in Galveston, to enforce the return of the state government to the United States and to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.
The next day, speaking from the balcony of Ashton Villa, General Granger read aloud what was simply called “general order number three,” declaring to all those gathered there:
“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.”
As word spread through the city, African-Americans long held as property emerged from the homes where they had worked as slaves, crying with joy, singing and embracing one another.
The white residents who, until the day before, could still intimidate slaves into submission, no longer dared to do so with so many armed federal troops now there to protect the “freedmen.” The day became perhaps the single most important one in their lives, “June” and “Nineteen” quickly turned into the shorthand of a special word to memorialize that moment as “Juneteenth.”
On June 19th in the following year of 1866, the now-freed African-American population of Galveston celebrated the day of jubilee as a day of thanksgiving prayer and a celebratory picnic gathering.
But other major population centers in Texas were also doing the same.
In Houston, for example, the local black population would soon pool all their resources and purchase a piece of land set aside just for the annual celebration, which would become that city’s Emancipation Park.
In Austin, Texas, the first celebration in 1867 was recognized as a public event within five years.
It’s unclear whether black slaves held in Texas had even been informed or read about the Emancipation Proclamation when it was first issues in 1863.
Anecdotal evidence suggested that some slaveholders had withheld the news, certain that the Confederacy would have ultimately won the war or that they wished to get as much free labor for as long as possible.
What is known is that thousands of freed slaves were eager to leave Texas rather than now continue to work for low wages for those who had formerly held them in bondage.
And with the former slaves of Texas migrating west and north, they brought with them the tradition of celebrating Juneteenth.
The holiday flourished, not only in the former Confederate states but soon in New England, the Midwest and the Far West.
By the turn of the century, Juneteenth was established as a strong annual tradition, with the addition of public readings, music and dance performances and large community barbeques.
In fact, the open barbeque pit became a traditional aspect of Juneteenth celebrations, a point of reference where many of the pork parts which were once the only food given to slaves were now roasted by choice.
Even as the Civil War quickly receded over the ensuing decades, a strong sense of family connection to the original generation which remembered the day of freedom was intentionally evoked, the songs, the food and the dancing all reflecting those which were part of the enslaved African-American experience.
In time, as horse and buggies and then automobiles were taken to the designated outdoor park or woods area where the annual events were held, a parade through the local town or city evolved into part of the tradition.
Even among those families who had long left the land where they or their parents or grandparents had been held as slaves, there was an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston just for Juneteenth.
Before reaching its centennial year, however, the holiday lost some of its appeal.
As the 1950s saw the rise in a strong Civil Rights Movement, the goal of full social integration seemed to wane the enthusiasm for recalling the days of slavery’s end and the enforcement of a social code which encouraged black Americans to hold their celebrations apart from white Americans in more isolated areas.
Juneteenth was still celebrated in some parts of some states, but it had begun to take on the sense of being an “old” holiday remembered as special only to the now-elderly children and grandchildren of former slaves.
The 1976 Bicentennial marked not only a renewed interest in colonial history but further sparked the first widespread national interest in ethnic and immigrant “roots.” Among many in the American black community a stronger interest in its links to Africa and the heritage from the tribal nations there began to emerge.
Although Juneteenth had waned across the country, in Texas it was still considered part of state history and a new interest in the holiday, now infused with a new pride in African culture began to take hold.
In the Texas legislature, African-American Representative Al Edwards successfully introduced the bill which established Juneteenth as a state holiday in 1979.
A statue has now been erected near Ashton Villa with a figure raising the notice of freedom in his hand, as well as a sculpture of various individuals representing a cross-section of former African American slaves.
Since 1980, Juneteenth has been a fixture in Texas, but it has become an annual holiday recognized in all but eight states.
A long effort has been underway to make it a national holiday not only for African-Americans but all Americans, as a chance to renew the appreciation of freedom.
Below are pictures of Juneteenth events from around the country, some from the website Women In American History by Barbara Wells Sarudy.
At the end is a brief video about the holiday as it is celebrated where it all started, in Galveston, Texas.
- An Inclusive Juneteenth (channel3000.com)
- Juneteenth events celebrate slave freedom (news-journalonline.com)
- Juneteenth Summer Celebration 2013 (jackprestonwood.com)
- Binghamton celebrates Juneteenth (wbng.com)
- Juneteenth Celebration (wenhw.wordpress.com)
- Slavery in California ~ California State Library Exhibit ~ 1865 Project (indybay.org)
- Mosaic Templars grows Juneteenth (arktimes.com)
- Juneteenth a celebration rooted in history, freedom (hollandsentinel.com)
- Kalamazoo’s Juneteenth celebration helping to keep African traditions alive (mlive.com)
- Juneteenth Day 2013 (themilwaukeedrum.com)