ECW is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog.
I had never heard of Juneteenth until I was attending college in Buffalo, New York in 1977. Friends asked me if I was going to stay after the semester ended to join in the Juneteenth celebration. I confessed my ignorance of this holiday and they were surprised that a nineteen year old from Long Island who was so interested in Civil War history had never heard of the day celebrating of the end of slavery. I read up on Juneteenth in the few sources that discussed it in the university library and I followed the large events on June 19th in Buffalo, but I did not get a real sense of the true origins of the commemoration of the end of slavery in Texas and why by 1977 it was a major day in Buffalo.
Since then, I have attended many Juneteenth events at my wife’s church in Brooklyn, at different villages on Long Island, and at campuses nearby. Most were not focused on the specifics of the history of the celebration, but rather on the commemoration of the end of slavery and the denunciation of the persistent ideology of white supremacy generated by the insitutional enslavement of Black people. This is common in other history-based holidays. For example, Memorial Day commemorations typically highlight recently deceased local people who gave their lives in service to their country, rather than the holiday’s origins after the Civil War. But, of course, I studied history and I wanted to know more about the events that gave rise to Juneteenth and how an event that happened in one city in Texas became, a century and a half later, a national celebration and, in 2021, a National Holiday.
If I was writing this a decade ago I would have started with an explanation of what Juneteenth was, and a description of the events in Galveston, Texas on June 19th, 1865 that made that date central to the story of the city’s African American community. Of course, by 2022 my readers will be familiar at least with the outlines of the origin story.
Although slavery had been ended in Texas on January 1, 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, it was only the arrival of the United States army and navy, and the occupation of the City of Galveston by those heavily armed forces that brought freedom to the enslaved there. The public reading of United States Army Major General Gordon Granger’s General Order Number 3 on June 19, 1865 told the enslaved that they were free and warned those who claimed to own Black human beings that continued “ownership” was illegal. This is what the Order said:
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…
We know that there were immediate celebrations in Galveston, but African Americans in other cities and towns in Texas did not celebrate that day. They likely did not even know about the proclamation at the time. Certainly, no one outside of Texas paid much attention to Granger’s words. So how did this one day persevere in the memory of the advent of freedom in Galveston and soon in many parts of Texas?
We know that the Black community in Galveston celebrated Juneteenth in 1866, the very first year after their liberation. Juneteenth was not called “Juneteenth” the first time it was celebrated. It was called “Emancipation Day” or “Jubilee Day” in most early accounts.
By 1867, Juneteenth had spread beyond its origin point in Galveston to other centers of the Black population in Texas. Agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau supported these community celebrations which joined together a rejoicing in liberation from the Confederates and slavery with a demonstration of growing Black power and civic participation. It was a celebration, says a June 20, 1871 article in the Houston Union newspaper, of the fact that on June 19th, 1865, Black people were, for the first time, the “owners… of their own bodies and souls.”
The fact that United States military officers usually spoke at the celebrations reinforced the alliance of Black communities with the Federal government in securing the blessings of Reconstruction for the African American community. The 1871 Houston celebration came the year after the ratification of the 15th Amendment guaranteeing Black men the right to vote, although Black Texans had been voting for three years already under state law and they now had a multiracial legislature.
In the Houston Union article, the author says that the celebrants gathered in the courthouse square. This was the visible center of power in the city of Houston. They were met by a band sent over from Galveston. This shows the interconnections of African American communities in the region. The author also adds that the Houston community was trying to form its own brass band, an indication of the growth of institutions in the community of the freedpeople.
The article says that various African American organizations were represented. One of these was the “Drayman’s Club.” Draymen drove delivery wagons, they were the 19th Century’s equivalent of truck drivers. The “club” was likely a sort of labor union for those in this occupation. The benevolent associations mentioned in the article were clubs formed for mutual aid in the Black community. These groups did everything from helping members down on their luck, to organize outings and picnics, to burying members when they died. Considering that most of the members of these groups were slaves just six years earlier, this is remarkable.
The assembly then “marched about the city,” something they could never have done under slavery, and proceeded to the fairgrounds where they heard speeches, danced, and enjoyed one another’s company.
Texas newspapers took notice of the Black celebration on June 19th. The Tri-Weekly State Gazette in Austin noted on June 22, 1868 that a large Juneteenth celebration in the state capital included an address by the governor to Black people gathered for a barbeque and patriotic displays.
The celebrations were not restricted to large cities. Harrisburg was a growing railroad town southeast of Houston. It was later incorporated into the City of Houston. I found an 1871 notice of a Juneteenth celebration with a “procession, speeches, and a barbeque.” The celebration of Juneteenth spread as Black freedom spread.
Copies of the newspaper articles I cited may be found here.
If you are interested in reading historian Annette Gordon-Reed’s personal reflection on Juneteenth, here is my review of her recent book On Juneteenth.