On most Sunday mornings I like to listen to Gospel Music. Yesterday, I spent some time with Aretha Franklin’s Aretha Gospel (1991), a double CD set of music recorded at the great diva’s father C.L. Franklin’s church in Detroit. I love that album so much. While listening, I remembered that the next day was the 19th, and would mark the new Federal holiday, Juneteenth.
Juneteenth is also known as Freedom Day. It is a day that commemorates the announcement of the abolishing of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865, and more generally, it celebrates the emancipation of slaves throughout the Confederate South.
It is the oldest celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. It was on June 19, 1865 that Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved population were now free. This was two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln‘s Emancipation Proclamation which had become law January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation was no big deal for Texans because there were so few Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. The surrender of General Robert E. Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival Granger’s regiment, meant that the U.S. Army was finally strong enough to have real influence.
The two-and-a-half-year delay in the receiving of this important news has brought several folk tales that have been handed down through the decades. There is a story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom; the news was deliberately withheld by the slave owners to maintain the labor force on the plantations; federal troops waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln’s authority over the rebellious states was in question. Whatever the reasons, Texas held onto the status quo well beyond the new law.
One of Granger’s first orders of business was to read to the people of Texas, General Order Number Three which began 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 hired laborer.”
The reactions to the news ranged from pure shock to immediate jubilation. Many former slaves left their former ”masters”. Even with nowhere to go, many felt that leaving the plantation would be their first grasp of freedom. Most moved North, for many it represented true freedom, while the desire to find family members in neighboring states had some going to Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Settling into these new areas as free men and women brought on new challenges for Black people in America.
Recounting the memories of that great day in June of 1865 and its festivities served as a release from the pressures encountered in their new territory.
The celebration of June 19th was named “Juneteenth” and it grew with more participation from descendants of slavery. The Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other 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.
This holiday is observed in local African-American community celebrations. Traditions include public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, singing traditional songs like Lift Every Voice And Sing, and readings by noted Black writers. Celebrations include small parades, street fairs, BBQs, family reunions, historical reenactments, and Miss Juneteenth contests. Juneteenth always put focus on education and self-improvement. Dressing up was also important in early Juneteenth customs. During slavery there were laws that prohibited or limited the dressing of the enslaved.
In the early years, there was little interest outside the Black community in participation in Juneteenth celebrations. The events were often forbidden to use public property for the festivities. Most Juneteenth parties were held in rural areas around or often on church grounds.
On Wednesday, Congress voted overwhelmingly to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday, elevating the day marking the end of slavery in Texas to a national remembrance of emancipation amid the larger reckoning about this country’s turbulent history with racism.
It is the first new federal holiday created by Congress since 1983, when lawmakers voted to establish Martin Luther King Jr. Day after a 15-year fight to commemorate the great assassinated Civil Rights leader.
The vote was heralded by the bill’s supporters as a milestone in the effort to foster a greater recognition of the horrors of slavery in the United States of America and the long history of inequality that followed emancipation and continues to this day.
I live in Portland, Oregon, one of the whitest of major American cities, and we don’t seem to have any official celebration of Juneteenth. How white is Portland? Portland is so white that the original Black neighborhood was named “Albina”.
(White House photo, Chandler West, public domain)