When I first moved to Texas five years ago, I was introduced to a new Holiday I had never heard of – “Juneteenth.” Everyone spoke about it in the way that you do of references you assume everyone understands, “What are y’all doing for Juneteenth?” or “Have you seen the school’s planned display for Juneteenth?” I finally got up the nerve to ask a colleague what the deal was in “Juneteenth”? I figured it was some celebration of Texas Independence (a topic of which I know shamefully little due to the fact that I’m a ‘foreigner’ here in the Great State). However, what I learned was a shocking and fascinating story of slavery, the American Civil War, and a small beach town of Galveston, Texas.
The Official Juneteenth Committee in East Woods Park Austin, TX courtesy of the Austin History Center
The story of Juneteenth begins with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia in April of 1865. The event marked the end of the war and, along with it, an end of slavery in the Southern States. Even though the slaves had been officially freed in the Emancipation Proclamation (check out this great link by the way, it’s a featured document in the government archives) on January 1, 1863 with President Lincoln’s statement:
“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”
It wasn’t until the official surrender of the Confederate states that the Union was actually able to enforce the proclamation. Not surprisingly, the news of Lee’s surrender and the freedom of the slaves took a while to make its way across the South where roads and communication lines were disrupted. It was not until June 19, 1865 that the slaves of Galveston, Texas (one of the western-most cities in the Confederacy) learned of their freedom from General Gordon Granger, when he arrived in the small Texas town along with 2,000 Union troops and read order number 3:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
The slaves of Texas, more than 250,000 of them, learned that they were free more than two months after the end of the war. A series of grass-roots celebrations followed and continues to the modern day. This month’s Smithsonian Magazine highlights the history of Juneteenth in this article. I highly recommend it for those interested in Civil Rights and the American Civil War.