By: Sister Tarpley
Juneteenth, also known as Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day, is a holiday that commemorates the June 19, 1865, announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas. And, more generally the emancipation of Black slaves throughout the Confederate South. Celebrated on June 19, the word is a combination of “June” and “nineteenth”. Juneteenth is recognized as a state holiday or special day of observance in forty-five states.
The holiday is observed primarily in local celebrations. Traditions include public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, singing traditional songs such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” And also, readings by noted Black writers such as Ralph Ellison and Maya Angelou are read. Celebrations may include parades, rodeos, street fairs, cookouts, family reunions, park parties, historical reenactments, or Miss Juneteenth contests.
During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, with an effective date of January 1, 1863. It declared all slaves to be freed in the Confederate States of America in rebellion and not in Union hands.
More isolated geographically, Texas was not a battleground, and thus its slaves were not affected by the Emancipation Proclamation unless they escaped. Planters and other slaveholders had migrated into Texas from eastern states to escape the fighting, and many brought their slaves with them, increasing by the thousands the number of slaves in the state at the end of the Civil War. Although most slaves lived in rural areas, more than 1000 resided in both Galveston and Houston by 1860, with several hundred in other large towns.
By 1865, there were an estimated 250,000 slaves in Texas. As news of the end of the war moved slowly, it did not reach Texas until May 1865, and the Army of the Trans-Mississippi did not surrender until June 2. On June 18, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived at Galveston Island with 2,000 federal troops to occupy Texas on behalf of the federal government. On June 19, standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, Granger read aloud the contents of “General Order No. 3”, announcing the total emancipation of slaves:
“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.”
Planters and other slaveholders had migrated into Texas from eastern states to escape the fighting, and many brought their slaves with them, increasing by the thousands the number of slaves in the state at the end of the Civil War. But, the following year, freedmen organized the first of what became annual celebrations of Juneteenth in Texas. Barred in some cities from using public parks because of state-sponsored segregation of facilities, across parts of Texas, freed people pooled their funds to purchase land to hold their celebrations, as in Houston, Mexia and in Austin.
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration (in Texas at least) commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States and honors Black heritage. It was on June 19, 1865 that the Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free.
That was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – which became official January 1, 1863. Juneteenth is recognized as a state holiday or state observance in 45 U.S. states.