By Luana M. Graves Sellars
In a speech commemorating the 150th-anniversary celebration of Juneteenth, President Obama stated:
“On this day 150 years ago, more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the slaves of Galveston, Texas finally received word that the Civil War was over. They were free. A century and a half later, Americans still recognize this occasion, Juneteenth, as a symbolic milestone on our journey toward a more perfect union. At churches and in parks, lined up for parades and gathered around the barbecue pit, communities come together and celebrate the enduring promise of our country: that all of us are created equal. But Juneteenth has never been a celebration of victory, or an acceptance of the way things are. Instead, it’s a celebration of progress. It’s an affirmation that despite the most painful parts of our history, things do get better. America can change.”President Barak Obama – June 20, 2015
Recognized as the final date that slavery was officially ended in America, June 19th, also known as Juneteenth, has been celebrated for the last 150 years. Not seen as a well-known holiday outside of the Black community, however, it is still celebrated nationwide and was made an official Texas state holiday by state legislator, Al Edwards on January 1, 1980. The official state recognition for Juneteenth deems it as a day for family and friends to gather to celebrate freedom and accomplishments made by African Americans. After 115 years, of celebrations, sometimes also called Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, the historical events that led to the holiday reveals an interesting and complex beginning.
June 19, 1865, was a day that not only changed the lives of tens of thousands of slaves in the United States, it also marked the change of our country’s history. Slavery was abolished on January 1, 1863, by President Lincoln’s Executive Order known as the Emancipation Proclamation. Even though there was no legal right or justification for slavery to continue after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, many slave owners continued the practice. Military enforcement of the law was minimal, especially in Texas, until the surrender of General Lee in April 1865. The arrival of General Granger and his troops to Galveston, Texas, signaled a significant change to the balance of power, enabling the Union forces to finally overwhelm and squash the Confederate resistance. Once General Granger was able to stabilize Texas and take control, among his first acts was to read General Order Number 3 to the people of Texas, which began most significantly 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 heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”
Understanding why there was a two year delay in the acceptance and recognition of the end of slavery has uncovered several interesting versions of the story. One version has been told that the government’s messenger who was tasked with delivering word of the Emancipation Proclamation to Texas was murdered before he could complete his mission. Another version is that the news of freedom was delivered, however, it was not in the best interests of the slave owners to comply, so they deliberately withheld the information for as long as they could. Yet another explanation is that the Union troops were informed, but may have delayed sharing the information so that a final cotton-growing season could yield another harvest before the slaves were released.
Regardless of the cause of the delay, the news of emancipation created an enormous cause for celebration amongst the slaves, who chose to use June 19th to mark the final date that slavery was abolished. Once the news was delivered, it spread quickly but it created new issues for the suddenly freed slaves. In some cases, slaves immediately walked away from their slave masters, even though they didn’t have anywhere to go. Going North was a literal and figurative move toward freedom. Other freed men and women, chose to search for family members from whom they had been separated. Remaining with their former owners was also a choice for some. Regardless of the decision they made, the newly freed men and women faced a new and unfamiliar status as American citizens with the same rights and privileges as all other citizens.
The celebration of Juneteenth began to decline in the early 1900’s, because many Blacks wanted to begin looking forward toward their future achievements, rather than looking back at the depressing memories associated with human slavery. However, increasingly, Juneteenth became associated with the cohesiveness of family and community, the holiday has been reinvigorated and is widely celebrated in the African American community. Typically, it is a day for family reunions and a time to honor the past, and use it as a bridge to the future. Writer and artist Tom Feelings eloquently argued for African Americans to embrace the past as a way to gain strength as a community. He said:
“But, if this part of our history could be told in such a way that those chains of the past, those shackles that physically bound us together against our wills could, in the telling, become spiritual links that willingly bind us together now and into the future – then that painful Middle Passage could become, ironically, a positive connecting line to all of us whether living inside or outside the continent of Africa…”Tom Feelings
The recording of American History includes the details of the Emancipation Proclamation, but the story surrounding Juneteenth has for the most part been left out of United States history books. This significant omission can also be attributed to the overall decline in Juneteenth celebrations.
Today, the Juneteenth celebration lives on in the Lowcountry area through historical Mitchelville. In 2016, the site hosted a Juneteenth celebration, which was one of the highlights of the Underground Railroad Conference. Based on its historical significance, the Mitchelville Preservation Project was added as a member of the Network to Freedom Underground Railroad Conference and selected as the location for the conference. According to Diane Miller, the National Program Manager for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, which is operated through the National Park Service:
“The 2016 Underground Railroad Conference will examine the transition to freedom and construction of a society based on liberty. The Mitchelville Juneteenth celebration allows visitors to pause in commemoration of the important moments in our history when freedom came to enslaved people and our nation’s long arc to equality took a significant turn. By experiencing the re-created sights and sounds of this era, visitors, especially youth, can connect to the past and gain a deeper understanding of the issues that challenge us today.”
For more information, contact the Mitchelville Preservation Project at mitchelvillepreservationproject.com.
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