On June 19, 1865, more than two years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Union troops landed at Galveston, Texas. With the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of the Union regiment, the Civil War was officially over.
One of the first orders of the Union general, Gordon Granger, for the people of Texas was to comply with General Order Number 3, which began:
“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 free laborer.”
Thus began the tradition of celebrating June 19th, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, as an American holiday honoring African American heritage and celebrated by people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. Recounting the memories of that day in June of 1865 and its festivities would serve as motivation as well as a release from the growing pressures encountered by African Americans in future years. The celebration of June 19th was coined “Juneteenth” and grew with more participation from descendants. The Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.
In the early years, little interest existed outside the African American community to participate in the celebrations. Most of the festivities found themselves out in rural areas around rivers and creeks that could provide for additional activities such as fishing, horseback riding, and barbecues. Often a church was the site for such gatherings. Eventually, as African Americans became landowners, land was donated and dedicated for honoring June 19th. Rev. Jack Yates organized one of the earliest documented land purchases in the name of Juneteenth. This fund-raising effort yielded $1000 and the purchase of Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas.
Dress was also an important element in early Juneteenth customs and is still taken seriously, particularly by direct descendants. During slavery there were laws in many areas that prohibited or limited the dressing of the enslaved. During the initial days of the emancipation celebrations, there are accounts of former slaves tossing their ragged garments into the creeks and rivers to adorn clothing belonging to their former ‘masters.’
Strawberry soda pop emerged as the popular beverage to serve at June 19th celebrations and subsequently became synonymous with Juneteenth. Traditions include an enunciated public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation as a reminder that the slaves have been proclaimed free. Celebrants often sing traditional songs as well such as Swing Low, Sweet Chariot; Lift Every Voice and Sing; and poetry from authors like Maya Angelou. Juneteenth celebrations also include a wide range of festivities to celebrate American heritage, such as parades, rodeos, street fairs, cookouts, family reunions, or park parties. Some of the events may include things such as historical reenactments, or Miss Juneteenth contests.
On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official Texas state holiday through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator. The successful passage of this bill marked Juneteenth as the first emancipation celebration granted official state recognition. Edwards has since actively sought to spread the observance of Juneteenth all across America. Juneteenth is recognized as a state holiday in 36 states.
Today, Juneteenth is enjoying a phenomenal growth rate within communities and organizations throughout the country. Institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Henry Ford Museum and others have begun sponsoring Juneteenth-centered activities. In recent years, a number of local and national Juneteenth organizations have arisen to take their place along side older organizations – all with the mission to promote and cultivate knowledge and appreciation of African American history and culture.
As it takes on a more national, symbolic and even global perspective, the events of 1865 in Texas are not forgotten.