Juneteenth is a day to commemorate freedom from chattel slavery in this country, but also a reminder for white people to continue to grapple with their white privilege and work toward eliminating the racial oppression alive and well in the systems and institutions in this country.
On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger, backed by 1800 Union soldiers, announced in Galveston that the Civil War had ended and all enslaved people were free. At the end of the war he was given command over the District of Texas and his announcement was based on Lincoln’s Executive order, The Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863. Granger’s Order No. 3 starts 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 therefore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.
This announcement continued with an urging of former slaves to stay and work for wages from their former masters and warned the former slaves not to gather at military posts or show signs of “idleness.”
Of course, the Emancipation Proclamation referenced above, only freed slaves in states that had seceded from the Union in the Civil War. In other words, it did NOT free the slaves in the border states who were fighting on the side of the Union. In fact, one intention of the Emancipation Proclamation was to entice southern states to stop fighting and join the Union and therefore KEEP their slaves. No southern state took Lincoln up on this offer and it wasn’t actually until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (December 1865) that slavery was actually ended in the United States. According to the Emancipation Proclamation, as of June 1865 when Granger made his announcement, only slaves in the former Confederacy were freed.
This was incredibly wonderful news for some former slaves who were able to hear it in Galveston and left to find family members in other states or to move to the North in a migration called “The Scatter.” Others in the state, however, took a long time to hear they had been freed or once they heard, could not so easily act on or with that new freedom.
Texas was one of the last outposts of slavery and the Confederacy. Union forces were repelled in one of the last fights of the Civil War in the Battle of Galveston, which actually ended two months after Lee had surrendered the previous April. As the South fell at the end of the war, many of the most hardcore slave holders from states like Louisiana and Mississippi and their slaves migrated to Texas. At the end of the war, 250,000 slaves were in Texas. Texas is a large state. News travels “slowly.”
Communication of Granger’s Order No. 3, was kept secret from many of the newly freed slaves by slaveholders in Texas who waited to share the news until after the harvest had been completed. The historian, Elizabeth Hayes Turner, describes the Galveston mayor at the time “forcing” the freed people back to work. Lynchings, beatings, and other forms of violence increased exponentially after the announcement in order to “control” the newly freed population. One report at the time described the multitude of bodies of freedmen hanging from the trees in Sabine County, Texas. It wasn’t actually until the arrival of the Freedman’s Bureau in Texas in September 1865, which supported and advocated for the rights of the newly freed, that Juneteenth was able to be embraced as a celebratory day, first commemorated a year later in 1866. When the Freedmen’s Bureau arrived, the chipping away at white supremacy began only to be reinstated with Black Codes and Jim Crow.
Celebrating Juneteenth was once considered a radical act of freedom. Many of the Juneteenth celebrations were resisted by local white authorities, so at first African Americans celebrated in rural areas far from cities. Eventually they were able to purchase land, Emancipation Park in Houston (1872) and Booker T Washington Park in Mexia (1898), where they were able to gather and celebrate Juneteenth. Celebrations diminished during Jim Crow because of the reinstitution of segregation and slave-like control throughout the state. Celebrations of Juneteenth, however, revived during the Civil Rights movement, specifically during the Poor People’s Campaign (1968) after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Juneteenth became the closure for the end of the Campaign and the practice of Juneteenth was brought back to peoples’ communities across the country. It has been more widely celebrated ever since.
On January I, 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas. According to Wikipedia, now it is officially recognized as a state holiday or special day of observance in 49 of the 50 states (not Hawaii).
It is still not a federal holiday.