On June 19th, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger brought profound news to the people of Galveston, Texas as he read out General Order Number 3 that 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, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
Source – Resource UMC
However, it is also important to note that the news of freedom reached Texas two years after the Emancipation Proclamation made by Lincoln on January 1st, 1863. The delay in the receipt of news has been attributed to a myriad of reasons according to several historians. While some believe that a messenger of the US Federal government was killed on his way to Texas, some believe that the news was deliberately withheld by enslavers because they wanted to maintain the labor force on the plantations until the cotton harvest.
This news was received with shock but also immense joy by enslaved African-American people across the slave states and thus the 19th of June, also known as ‘Juneteenth’ is celebrated to commemorate the end of slavery after enduring a long and brutal struggle. The day is also sometimes called “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day.”
Source – DWELL
“We was the happiest people in the world when we knowed we was free. We couldn’t realize it at first but how we did shout and cry for joy when we did realize it.”
– Annie Hawkins
“When mother heard that, she said she slipped out of the chimney corner and cracked her heels together four times and shouted, “I’s free, I’s free.” Then she ran to the field, against master’s will, and told all the other slaves, and they quit work.”
– Tempie Cummins
The celebrations held during this day are integral to the black community not only to honor their freedom struggle but also their culture and shared history. It is celebrated with food, music, prayer and range of other fun activities such as rodeos, fishing, barbecuing and playing baseball. In some cities, like Atlanta and Washington, this day is celebrated by holding larger events, like parades and festivals with participation from residents, local businesses and more.
The celebrations around Juneteenth have a history of its own. In the first few decades of Juneteenth celebrations, this day was used to search for lost family members. Further, many formerly enslaved people and their descendants would make an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston.
In 1872, two Black church congregations bought ten acres of parkland in Houston’s Third Ward for $800 and built Emancipation Park to host Juneteenth celebrations. In 1898, the local Juneteenth organization in Mexia purchased Booker T. Washington Park, which had become the Juneteenth celebration site. Most workers were even allowed the day off for the celebration of Emancipation Day.
However, in the early 1900s, celebrations of Juneteenth saw a downswing attributing to several socio-cultural forces. Classroom and textbook education put less emphasis on the lives of formerly enslaved people and also failed to mention the enslavement of black people in Texas even years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
It considered 1863 to be the year slavery ended and hence did not include General Granger’s announcement at Galveston and the impact it had. Further, simply ending slavery did not end racism and thus black people continued to experience marginalization and oppression for years, especially owing to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.
However, with the Civil Rights Movement in full swing in the 1950s and 1960s, celebrations around Juneteenth saw a newfound meaning. The protesting African American youth linked their struggles to the historical struggles of their ancestors. In the Atlanta civil rights campaign carried out in the early 1960’s, student demonstrators were found wearing Juneteenth freedom buttons.
The historic struggle against slavery resonated with oppressed classes from across communities and hence Juneteenth held significance for even those who did not belong to the black community. This was evident after the Poor People’s March to Washington in 1968, when many of these attendees returned home and initiated Juneteenth celebrations in areas previously absent of such activities.
Source – history.com
In 1980, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official state holiday. Since then, at least 45 states and the District of Columbia have moved to officially recognize the day. In light of the Black Lives Matter protest last year, several companies such as Twitter, Square, N.F.L., Best Buy, Nike and Target have declared Juneteenth a company holiday, giving employees a paid day off.
On June 16th, 2021, the US Congress passed a bill making it a federal holiday. Further, this year Galveston will dedicate a 5,000 square-foot mural, entitled “Absolute Equality,” on the spot where General Granger informed enslaved African-Americans of their freedom.
While these actions are symbolic and a welcome gesture, it however is not enough to end racism. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, AhmaudArbery and many other innocent black people is indicative of the deep seated prejudice against the black community as well as the systemic injustice faced by them. Thus, the fight against racism demands more structural changes such as defunding the police, better welfare measures, reformed gun laws, better representation in policy making and much more.
Written by- Yashaswi Shetty
Edited by- Heeral Datwani