ECW Weekender: Juneteenth – Celebrating Freedom

Posting this weekender earlier than usual so there’s time to register and attend the free virtual tour today about the Civil War and Emancipation at Montpelier! Details and registration below.

June 19, 1865. It had been over two years since Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation which promised freedom to enslaved men, women, and children within Confederate territory, but that news had not reached many of the enslaved in Texas. In Galveston, an official order came from Major General Gordon Granger, reading:

“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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

Shock and joy accompanied the news. Men, women, and children celebrated the moment and made plans for a future of freedom. Some left the plantations and moved to new locations, building new lives in new places. Others stayed and tried to navigate the new employer and hired labor situation within the Reconstruction military district.

The following year—1866—marked the first of the annual freedom celebrations on June 19th, a day which later became “Juneteenth” or Emancipation Day. Traditionally celebrated with religious services or inspiring speeches, reading the Emancipation Proclamation, sharing written or oral history about life before emancipation and the moment when freedom came, picnics, family gatherings, dances, and other uplifting activities, this day commemorates the day when independence and freedom was finally announced and enforced for African Americans in Texas. As the families moved to other locations in the south, west, and north, they continued to celebrate Juneteenth – an ending of bondage and a day of freedom.

Photograph of the 1905 Emancipation Day celebrations in Richmond, Virginia. “Juneteenth” commemorations and festivities moved across the country, not limited to Texas!

The origins and celebrations of this holiday are directly tied to the Civil War and emancipation. This year several governors have officially recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday, bringing another part of Civil War history, memory, and the saga of freedom into the current discussions.

Several months ago, I had made plans to attend the Juneteenth celebration hosted and sponsored by Orange County African-American Historical Society, James Madison’s Montpelier, and The Arts Center in Orange. Due to social distancing and the pandemic, the celebrations have to be held virtually this year, but there is still a lot to learn and explore. And lots of history connected to the Civil War era! The event coordinators graciously provided extra information and links for the presentation and extra resources.

Today – at 2:00pm – you’ll be able to virtually join a tour to explore Sites of Emancipation at Montpelier. Matthew Reeves, Director of Archaeology, will lead a program to see how Archaeological surveys, combined with historical research, have revealed how many of the enslaved community took their quest for freedom into their own hands during the period from 1863-1865. This virtual tour will explore the background history of Montpelier leading up to the Civil War, then we will head into the woods to explore sites of emancipation at Montpelier. We will finish the tour with an overview of the Gilmore Farm – a restored Freedman’s cabin at Montpelier – and several other post-Emancipation house sites on the property.

Click here to register for the event (which includes an option to see the recorded presentation later!)

**I will check over the weekend and see if I can find a public link for the video tour and will update this article accordingly!

You can also check out other resources, videos, discussions, and the ongoing virtual celebration at the event’s website:

Happy Juneteenth! May we always cherish freedom for all.

5 Responses to ECW Weekender: Juneteenth – Celebrating Freedom

  1. Thanks Sarah. My birthday was two days ago and my oldest daughter bought me the book “Wilmington Lies.”
    Thanks again

  2. I find myself confounded by the Juneteenth celebration/simi-official holiday. It seems to be connected to the Emancipation Proclamation which was first “proclaimed” on June 17, 1862, but Juneteenth is celebrated on June 19? Why the two day gap? Besides, the proclamation clearly states it will not take effect until 1863, six months later?
    Looking at the Emancipation Proclamation Document, it is dated September 22, 1862? Why?
    The Emancipation Proclamation did not supposedly take effect until January 1, 1863, but in actuality it didn’t have any force of law behind it! The territories identified were outside Lincoln’s power to control. The document only served to announce the Unions wish that slaves in the Confederate States, be freed, but made no such wishful proclamation for slaves in (Union) States he did control! Lincoln’s own Secretary of State, William H. Steward said of the proclamation; “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”
    The Emancipation Proclamation finally served two functions. To provide guidance to the Union military commanders on how to handle slaves when encountered. It was a policy directive providing freedom to slaves in disputed areas in rebellion only. Slaves in areas already under Union control or in States or territories controlled by the Union remained slaves.
    The second function was to eliminate the expected threat of England and France entering the war in the South’s defense. By cutting off the world’s primary source of cotton the Union had caused a great deal of problems for countries that exported woven goods. It was for that reason the Union feared interference by European industrial interests. By repackaging the war and making it into a great crusade to end slavery the Union eliminated any threat the English or French would intervene. The Union never mentioned that their slaves remained slaves.
    The whole thing was smoke and mirrors. If the war was meant solely to free the slaves, and the war started on April 12, 1861, with the bombardment of Ft. Sumter, why in heavens name did Lincoln wait until June 17, 1862 (1 year, 2 months) to notify the Confederacy of it, and delay it’s effective date to January 1, 1863 (6-months)?
    The following is from Lincoln’s letter to Horace Greeley, dated August 22, 1862, two months after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, and four months prior to its taking effect, Lincoln is assuring Horace Greeley, in this letter, that as long as he preserves the Union he cares very little about freeing the slaves. How many times does this man have to say he doesn’t care about ending slavery before somebody believes him?

    “As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.
    I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.”

    1. Are you writing alternative history? Because that’s what this is, complete with fabricated dates of events.

  3. A video has been posted to the Montpelier page on Youtube of the live event earlier today. The presentation includes a lot of information about the impact of emancipation at Montpelier and the area around Orange, as well as what became of some of the formerly enslaved population. Also included is some information including artifacts uncovered from multiple Confederate encampments that were discovered on the property.

  4. What I dislike in many of these histories is the denial of any agency on the part of slaves. I would argue in large measure the slaves emancipated themselves. Like all other groups of people, there are those who make things happen, those who watch what happens, and those who wonder what happened.

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