…you’re free. Have been for two and a half years, but who’s counting?
I mean, can you even imagine!? Finding out you’d just slaved away for, well, nothing. I suppose that’s an oxymoron or something. It’s also what happened in Texas back in 1865. Somehow it took 2.5 years for news of the end of the war and emancipation of the slaves to reach Texas. Word finally arrived on June 19th, 1865. We call it Juneteenth. It’s a national holiday. Nobody wished me a Happy Juneteenth though. I don’t think it’s common knowledge. And I do think it should be.
Juneteenth celebration in Eastwoods Park, Austin, 1900 (Austin History Center)
Today in Texas History: Juneteenth
On this date in 1865, Union General Gordon Granger (November 6, 1822 – January 10, 1876) read the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, thus officially ordering the freeing of 250,000 slaves in Texas. Since then, many African Americans celebrate Juneteenth as a distinct Independence Day, marking freedom from bondage.
Most Americans assume that President Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, on January 1, 1863, abolished slavery. In truth, the majority of African Americans remained enslaved after that date. The Emancipation Proclamation applied only to Confederate States. The Proclamation did not free black slaves in Border States like Maryland, Kentucky, West Virginia and Delaware, where slavery was practiced. The Proclamation targeted the Confederacy, precisely where American law held no emotional or political authority.
Juneteenth marks the abolition of slavery in Texas. The news of freedom inspired celebrations by African Americans across the state, as well as reflections on and strategies regarding the future of the Texan black community as freed people. Historian Palomo Acosta writes, “The first broader celebrations of Juneteenth were used as political rallies to teach freed African Americans about their voting rights.”
The Freedmen’s Bureau organized the first official Texas Juneteenth celebration in Austin in 1867. Since 1872, Juneteenth has remained a part of the calendar of public events. Juneteenth often includes a host of events and activities which people of all ages can enjoy. The day is often marked by dance, theater and musical performances, as well as by sport activities and barbecues. “Lift Every Voice” remains a popular and traditional song performed at most Juneteenth celebrations held across the country.
Juneteenth declined in popularity in the 1960s as the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum. Calls for integration lessened the importance of black only events as African Americans tried to end de jure and de facto segregation. The rise of the Black Power Movement in the 1970s renewed interest in Juneteenth as many African Americans advocated for recognition of the uniqueness of the African American experience while also advocating for integration and equality in the country’s political, economic and educational spheres.
In 1979, state Rep. Al Edwards, a Houston Democrat, introduced a bill into the Texas legislature calling for the recognition of Juneteenth as a public holiday in the state of Texas. A state-supported Juneteenth celebration took place a year later.
Juneteenth illustrates two challenges facing the black community in the post civil rights era — fighting racism and the ideology of race while, at the same time, communicating the fact that, although the concept of race has no scientific basis, the color of one’s skin in America continues to inform the American experience on both a personal and community level. Simply stated, race may not be real, but it is lived. Juneteenth reflects this dual reality for the African American community.
Today, Texas and 29 other states recognize Juneteenth as an official public holiday. Last year, Representative Sheila Lee Jackson spoke in support of a resolution commemorating the historical significance of Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the United States.
Today, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison introduced legislation honoring Juneteenth Independence Day as a federal holiday. In a statement released by the senator, she stated, “By commemorating this day, the U.S. Senate will honor the role that Juneteenth has played in African-American culture in Texas and throughout the Southwest, and it will remind us that, in America, we are all blessed to live in freedom.”