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What Is Juneteenth?

A celebration of the day slaves in Texas were freed — more than two years after Emancipation Proclamation

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
What Is Juneteenth?
Abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass questioned the significance of the Fourth of July to the American slave.

When Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Orders, Number 3 and thus emancipating the slaves of Texas on June 19, 1865, he had no idea that he was also establishing the basis for a holiday, “Juneteenth” (“June” plus “Nineteenth”), today the most popular annual celebration of emancipation from slavery in the United States.

After all, by the time Granger assumed command of the Department of Texas, the Confederate capital in Richmond had fallen; President Lincoln was dead; and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was well on its way to ratification.

But Granger wasn’t just a few months late. The Emancipation Proclamation itself, ending slavery in the Confederacy (at least on paper), had taken effect two and a half years before, and in the interim, close to 200,000 black men had enlisted in the fight. So, formalities aside, wasn’t it all over, literally, but the shouting?

It would be easy to think so in our world of immediate communication, but as Granger and the 1,800 bluecoats under him soon found out, news traveled slowly in Texas. Whatever Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered in Virginia, the Army of the Trans-Mississippi had held out until late May, and even with its formal surrender on June 2, a number of ex-Rebels in the region took to bushwhacking and plunder.

That’s not all that plagued the extreme western edge of the former Confederate States. Since the capture of New Orleans in 1862, slave owners in Mississippi, Louisiana and other points east had been migrating to Texas to escape the Union Army’s reach. More than 150,000 slaves had made the trek west, according to historian Leon Litwack in his book Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. As one former slave he quotes recalled, “ ‘It looked like everybody in the world was going to Texas.’”

When Texas fell and Granger dispatched his now famous order No. 3, it wasn’t exactly instant magic for most of the Lone Star State’s 250,000 slaves. On plantations, masters had to decide when and how to announce the news — or wait for a government agent to arrive — and it was not uncommon for them to delay until after the harvest.

Hardly the recipe for a celebration — which is what makes the story of “Juneteenth” all the more remarkable. Defying confusion and delay, terror and violence, the newly “freed” black men and women of Texas, with the aid of the Freedmen’s Bureau (itself delayed from arriving until September 1865), now had a date to rally around. In one of the most inspiring grassroots efforts of the post-Civil War period, they transformed June 19 from a day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite, “Juneteenth,” beginning one year later in 1866.

 “The way it was explained to me, “one heir to the tradition was quoted in a published essay, “the 19th of June wasn’t the exact day the Negro was freed. But that’s the day they told them that they was free … And my daddy told me that they whooped and hollered and bored holes in trees with augers and stopped it up with [gun] powder and light and that would be their blast for the celebration.”

Other Contenders

There were other available anniversaries for celebrating emancipation, to be sure, including the following:

  • Sept. 22: the day Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation Order in 1862
  • Jan. 1: the day it took effect in 1863
  • Jan. 31: the date the 13th Amendment passed Congress in 1865, officially abolishing the institution of slavery
  • Dec. 6: the day the 13th Amendment was ratified that year
  • April 3: the day Richmond, Va., fell
  • April 9: the day Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant at Appomattox, Va.
  • April 16: the day slavery was abolished in the nation’s capital in 1862
  • May 1: Decoration Day, which, as David Blight movingly recounts in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, the former slaves of Charleston, S.C., founded by giving the Union war dead a proper burial at the site of the fallen planter elite’s Race Course.
  • July 4: America’s first Independence Day, some “four score and seven years” before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • Each of these anniversaries has their celebrants today. Each has also had its share of conflicts and confusion.

July 4 is compelling, of course, but it was also problematic for many African Americans. The country’s founders had given in on slavery and their descendants had expanded it through a series of failed “compromises,” at the nadir of which Frederick Douglass had made his own famous declaration to the people of Rochester, N.Y., on July 5, 1852.

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” Douglass asked. “I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity.”

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862.

The most logical candidate for commemoration of the slave’s freedom was Jan. 1. In fact, the minute Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect at the midpoint of the war, Northern black leaders like Douglass led massive celebrations in midnight jubilees; and on its 20th anniversary in 1883, they gathered again in Washington, D.C., to honor Douglass for all that he and his compatriots had achieved.

Yet even the original Emancipation Day had its drawbacks — not only because it coincided with New Year’s Day and the initiation dates of numerous other laws, but also because the underlying Proclamation — while of enormous symbolic significance — didn’t free all the slaves, only those in the Confederate states in areas liberated by Union troops, and not those in the border states in which slavery remained legal until the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

Because of its partial effects, some scholars argue that perhaps the most significant aspect of the Emancipation Proclamation was the authorization of black men to fight in the war, both because their service proved to be crucial to the North’s war effort, and because it would be cited as irrefutable proof of the right of blacks to citizenship (which would be granted by the 14th Amendment).

Juneteenth Endures

While national black leaders continued to debate the importance of remembering other milestone anniversaries, the freed people of Texas went about the business of celebrating their local version of Emancipation Day. For them, Juneteenth was, from its earliest incarnations, a past that was “usable” as an occasion for gathering lost family members, measuring progress against freedom and inculcating rising generations with the values of self-improvement and racial uplift.

This was accomplished through readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, religious sermons and spirituals, the preservation of slave food delicacies (always at the center: the almighty barbecue pit), as well as the incorporation of new games and traditions, from baseball to rodeos and, later, stock-car races and overhead flights.

Like a boxer sparring with his rival, year after year, Juneteenth was strengthened by the battle its committee members had to wage against the Jim Crow faithful of Texas who, in the years following Reconstruction, rallied around their version of history in an effort to glorify (and whitewash) past cruelties and defeats.

When whites forbade blacks from using their public spaces, black people gathered near rivers and lakes and eventually raised enough money to buy their own celebration sites, among them Emancipation Park in Houston and Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia.

When white leaders like Judge Lewis Fisher of Galveston likened the black freedman (“Rastus,” he called him) to “a prairie colt turned into a feed horse [to eat] ignorantly of everything,” Juneteenth celebrants dressed in their finest clothes, however poor, trumpeting the universal concerns of citizenship and liberty, with hero-speakers from the Reconstruction era and symbols like the Goddess of Liberty on floats.

Juneteenth Today

In 1979 Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday. Leading the charge was Rep. Al Edwards of Houston, often referred to as “the father of the Juneteenth holiday,” who framed it as a “source of strength” for young people, according to Hayes Turner. (As a concession to Lost Cause devotees, Texas reaffirmed its commitment to observing Jan. 19 as Confederate Heroes Day.)

Since then, 41 other states and the District of Columbia have recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday or holiday observance, including Rhode Island earlier this year.

“This is similar to what God instructed Joshua to do as he led the Israelites into the Promised Land,” Al Edwards told Yahoo in 2007. “A national celebration of Juneteenth, state by state, serves a similar purpose for us. Every year we must remind successive generations that this event triggered a series of events that one by one defines the challenges and responsibilities of successive generations. That’s why we need this holiday.”

As further proof that Juneteenth is back on the rise, Washington, D.C., was abuzz on Wednesday during the unveiling of a Frederick Douglass statue in the famed U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, thanks to the work of D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. Douglass joined three other African Americans in the Hall: Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King Jr.

No doubt Douglass would be surprised to learn that such an honor had not been scheduled for Jan. 1 (the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation), but glad nevertheless that the country is still finding ways to remember “the causes, the incidents, and the results” of the Civil War.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. This article first appeared on the Root.