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Juneteenth: A celebration of freedom

Juneteenth is recognized as a state holiday or special day of observance in 45 states

Compton Herald | Juneteenth
The Galveston, Texas Juneteenth marker. Photo: Texas Historical Commission

Largely embraced by African-Americans, efforts ongoing to acknowledge Juneteenth observance as a national holiday

Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of the last remaining slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation dated Sept. 22, 1862, ended slavery as of Jan. 1, 1863. It declared all slaves to be freed in the Confederate States of America in rebellion and not in Union hands. Texas was isolated geographically and being a non-battleground state, the news of freedom was withheld from slaves there for another two years.

June 19 was originally a Texas holiday but eventually widened for African-Americans as a day of celebration for the end of slavery.

Closer look at Juneteenth origins

Today, Juneteenth is recognized as a state holiday or special day of observance in 45 states. The holiday is observed primarily in local celebrations. Traditions include public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, traditional singing of slave-era freedom songs, and readings by noted African-American writers. Celebrations may include parades, rodeos, street fairs, cookouts, family reunions, park outings, and historical reenactments.

Although most slaves lived in rural areas, more than 1,000 resided in both Galveston and Houston by 1860, with several hundred in other large towns. By 1865, there were an estimated 250,000 slaves in Texas. As news of the end of the war moved slowly, it did not reach Texas until May 1865, and the Army of the Trans-Mississippi did not surrender until June 2.

On June 18, 1865, Union Army General Gordon Granger arrived atGalveston Island with 2,000 federal troops to occupy Texas on behalf of the federal government. On June 19, standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, Granger read aloud the contents of “General Order No. 3,” announcing the total emancipation of slaves:

“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.”

Former slaves in Galveston rejoiced in the streets after the announcement, although in the years afterward many struggled to work through the changes against the resistance of Whites. But, the following year, freedmen organized the first of what became annual celebrations of Juneteenth in Texas. Barred in some cities from using public parks because of state-sponsored segregation of facilities, across parts of Texas, freed people pooled their funds to purchase land to hold their celebrations, such as Houston‘s Emancipation Park, Mexia‘s Booker T. Washington Park, and Emancipation Park in Austin.

Although the date is sometimes referred to as the “traditional end of slavery in Texas,” it was given legal status in a series of Texas Supreme Court decisions between 1868 and 1874.

In the early 20th century, economic and political forces led to a decline in Juneteenth celebrations. From 1890 to 1908, Texas and all former Confederate states passed new constitutions or amendments that effectively disenfranchised African-Americans, excluding them from the political process. White-dominated state legislatures passed Jim Crow laws imposing second-class status. The Great Depression forced many Blacks off farms and into the cities to find work. In these urban environments, African-Americans had difficulty taking the day off to celebrate. From 1940 through 1970, in the second wave of the Great Migration, more than 5 million Blacks left Texas, Louisiana, and other parts of the South for the North and West Coast, where jobs were available in the defense industry for World War II. As historian Isabel Wilkerson writes, “The people from Texas took Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other places they went.”

By the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement focused the attention of African-American youth on the struggle for racial equality and the future. But, many linked these struggles to the historical struggles of their ancestors. Following the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign to Washington, D.C. called by Rev. Ralph Abernathy, many attendees returned home and initiated Juneteenth celebrations in areas where the day was not previously celebrated.

Since the 1980s and 1990s, the holiday has been more widely celebrated among African-American communities. In 1994 a group of community leaders gathered at Christian Unity Baptist Church in New Orleans, La. to work for a national celebration of Juneteenth. Paul Herring, chairman of The Juneteenth Committee credits Mrs. E. Hill Deloney (community matriarch) for starting the celebration in Flint, Mich., in the late 1980s; as he said, “…It’s a time to reflect and rejoice because we are the children of those who chose to survive.”

Juneteenth informal observances have spread to many other states, including Portland, Maine, in part carried by Texans. Expatriates have celebrated it in cities abroad, such as Paris. Some U.S. military bases in other countries even sponsor celebrations, in addition to those of private groups.

Organizations such as the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation are working toward gaining Congressional approval to designate Juneteenth as a national day of observance.

RELATED: Sign the National Juneteenth Holiday ONLINE PETITION

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