June 19, 1865
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. It was June 19, 1865 that the Union soldiers, led by General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note this was two and a half years after President Lincoln ‘s Emancipation Proclamation — which had become official January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.
General Order Number 3
General Granger read the General Order Number 3 to the people of Texas:
“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.”
The reactions to this profound news ranged from pure shock to immediate jubilation. While many lingered to learn of this new employer to employee relationship, many left before these offers were completely off the lips of their former ‘masters’ — attesting to the varying conditions on the plantations and the realization of freedom. Even with nowhere to go, many felt that leaving the plantation would be their first grasp of freedom. North was the logical destination and for many, it represented true freedom, while the desire to reach family members in neighboring states drove some into Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Settling into these new areas as free men and women brought on new realities and the challenges of establishing a heretofore non-existent status for black people in America. Recounting the memories of that great day in June of 1865 and its festivities would serve as motivation as well as a release from the growing pressures encountered in their new territory. 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 praying and for gathering remaining family members. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.
A range of activities were provided to entertain the masses, many of which continue in tradition today. Rodeos, fising, barbecuing, and baseball are just a few of the typical Juneteenth activities you may witness today. Juneteenth almost always focused on education and self-improvement. Thus, often guest speakers are brought in and the elders are called upon to recount the events of the past. Prayer services were also a major part of theses celebrations.
Certain foods became popular and subsequently synonymous with Juneteenth celebrations such as strawberry soda-pop. More traditional and just as popular was the barbecuing, through which Juneteenth participants could share in the spirit and aromas that their ancestors — the newly emancipated African Americans, would have experienced during their ceremonies. Hence, the barbecue pit is often established as the center of attention at Juneteenth celebrations.
Food was abundant because everyone prepared a special dish. Meats, such as lamb, pork, and beef, which were not available everyday, were brought on this special occasion. A true Juneteenth celebration left visitors satisfied and with enough conversation to last until the next.
Dress was also an important element in early Juneteenth customs and is often still taken seriously, particularly by the direct descendants who can make the connection to this tradition’s roots. During slavery, there were laws on the books in many areas that prohibited or limited the dressing of the enslaved. During the initial days of the emancipation celebrations, there are accounts of former slaves tossing their ragged garments into the creeks and rivers, to adorn clothing taken from the plantations, belonging to their former ‘masters.’
Juneteenth and Society
In the early years, little interest existed outside the African American community in participation in the celebrations. In some cases, there was outwardly exhibited resistance by barring the uses of public property for the festivities. Most of the festivities found themselves out in the rural areas around rivers and creeks, that could provide for additional activities such as fishing, horseback riding, and barbecues. Often the church grounds was the site for such activities. Eventually, as Aftrcan American s became land owners, land was donated and dedicated for these festivities.
One of the earliest documented land purchases in the name of Juneteenth was organized by Rev. Jack Yates. This fund-raising effort yielded $1000 and the purchase of Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas. In Mexia, the local Juneteenth organization 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 African Americans once flowed through during the course of a week, making the celebration one of the state’s largest.
Juneteenth Celebrations Decline
Economic and cultural forces resulted in a decline in Juneteenth activities and participation, beginning in the early 1900’s. Classroom and textbook education, in lieu of traditional home and family-taught practices, gave less emphasis & detail on the activities of former slaves and stifled the interest of the youth. Classroom textbooks recorded Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, as the date signalling the ending of slavery — and little or nothing on the impact of General Granger’s arrival on June 19th.
The Depression forced many people off their farms and into the cities to find work. In these urban environments, employers were less eager to grant leaves to celebrate this date. Thus, unless June 19th fell on a weekend, there were few participants.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’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. This was evidenced by student demonstrators involved in the Atlanta civil rights campaign in the early 1960’s, whom wore Junrteenth freedom buttons. Again in 1968, Juneteenth received another strong resurgence through the Poor Peoples March to Washington, D.C. Many of these attendees returned home and initiated Juneteenth celebrations in areas previously absent of such activity.
Juneteenth in Modern Times
Juneteenth today, celebrates African American freedom and achievement, while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures. As it gains a more national, symbolic, and even global perspective, the events of 1865 in Texas are not forgotten as its roots.
The future of Juneteenth looks bright as the number of cities and states creating Juneteenth committees continues to increase. Respect and appreciation for all of our differences grow out of exposure and working together. Getting involved and supporting Juneteenth celebrations creates new bonds of friendship and understanding among us. This indeed, brightens our future — and that is the “Spirit of Juneteenth”.