Juneteenth. Ever hear of it? Probably not, and yet for African Americans it is a day for remembering and celebrating. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced that all slaves were now free. You history buffs out there will notice that this is two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. One explanation for this lag is that there were few Union troops in Texas to enforce the Emancipation order. Only after Lee surrendered in April of 1865 and a Union regiment arrived in Texas was there the strength to enforce it.
There are several stories associated with this delay. One is that a messenger bearing the news was murdered. Another story is that slaveholders withheld the news as they needed the slave labor. A third story is that federal troops withheld the news so slaveholders could bring in one last cotton harvest. Furthermore there was the question of Lincoln’s authority in the Southern states.
At any rate, when General Granger reached Texas and read the proclamation that all slaves were free, there was great rejoicing on the part of the slaves. Many wasted not a day in leaving the plantations and heading North, which they saw as freedom, even with nowhere specific to go. In the following years, celebrating that important date of June 19th was a break from the difficulties encountered in the new surroundings. Soon termed Juneteenth, the date grew as a time for families to gather together for mutual support and to pray for one another.
Today in Texas it remains a date of great significance, and the descendants of slaves might even make a pilgrimage to Galveston for celebration on June 19th. Even elsewhere many African Americans commemorate this date with gatherings that feature speakers and focus on education while recalling the past. But is also a time for entertainment: barbecues, baseball and other sport activities, and even rodeos. As with many holidays, there are also special foods.
Although there was a decline in the Juneteenth celebration during the early part of the 20th century, there was a renewed interest with the advent of the Civil Rights Movement in the 50’s and 60’s. It may seem unlikely, but today two of the largest celebrations occur in Milwaukee and Minneapolis. Understandably, in 1980 Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas, and there are currently efforts to expand the observance of this day nationwide.
As to why I, a white woman living in northern New England, would write about Juneteenth, I am reminded of one of my young students who commented, “Why do they call it Black History? Isn’t it all just history?” And so may it be.
© Dorothy C. Judd
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