Saturday, June 20, 2015

Juneteenth—Celebrating Emancipation for 150 Years

Yesterday was Juneteenth, the joyous celebration of Emancipation widely observed in Black communities across the country and now spreading Africa and the Caribbean.  It was the 150th anniversary of the origin of the festivities and was expected to be particularly jubilant.  I planned to mark the occasion with this blog post.  But, alas, fate and racist terrorist intervened.  Perhaps it was not by accident.  Perhaps the killer who meticulously researched his targets, Charleston, South Carolina’s Mother Emanuel AME Church and its charismatic pastor, Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, and who worshiped the fallen Confederacy picked the eve of Juneteenth to cast a foreboding pall over its observance.  Certainly many celebrations paused in their revelry for solemn memorial services, just as I rushed an anguished commentary to replace this story.
But triumph cannot and should not be long dimmed by tears.  Delayed or not let us celebrate with the same wild abandon felt at the close of the long Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862.  Word spread through the slave grapevine pretty quickly in much of the Confederacy and, as Lincoln had hoped, many slaves abandoned their plantations and sought the safety of Union forces whereever they could.  Not only did this cripple the Rebel economy, but the refugees formed a pool of laborers, teamsters, and—eventually—troops in support of the war effort. 
But things were different in Texas at the far western edge of the Confederacy.  Word was slow getting there.  After the fall of Vicksburg in 1863 Confederate territory west of the Mississippi was pretty well cut off from the eastern states.  Although word might have leaked through in some places, around Galveston, the main port for the exportation of cotton from East Texas, slave owners evidently were pretty successful in keeping their property from learning that they were free. 
Far from the main theater of the war, the last battles were fought in Texas along the Rio Grande on May 13 and Major General Kirby Smith, commander of the Trans-Mississippi District became the last major Rebel commander to formally surrender on June 2.

On June 18 Major General Gordon Granger landed on Galveston Island to take possession of Texas for the Union.  The next day, June 19, the General was said to have stepped onto the balcony of the Ashton Villa and addressed a large crowd of Blacks.  He read them his General Order #3:
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.
The announcement set off joyous celebrations and the word spread across Texas.  The next year, former slaves marked the occasions with more celebrations, which soon became a yearly celebration.  The events were similar to those that occurred across the South on local anniversaries of the Jubilee Days of Emancipation.  

A folk art representation of freed slaves celebrating Juneteenth on their plantation with music and dancing.
The Texas observances quickly became major annual events in Black communities.  By 1870 the day became known as Juneteenth and various traditions started to be associated with it.  Outdoor gatherings of extended families, churches, or communities grew to be all day festivals.  The day typically began with Gordon’s order being read or the text of the Emancipation Proclamation followed by recitations of family stories, singing songs like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, dancing, the recitation of poetry, and prayer.  The central event of the day was usually a community-wide barbeque and pot luck. 
Because slave codes often forbade those in bondage from wearing finery of any kind, by the late 19th Century people turned out in their finest clothes.  There were sports of various sorts, particularly baseball, races of all sorts, and—particularly in West Texasrodeos. 
In many towns local blacks pooled their funds to buy land for the annual gatherings.  These Juneteenth Grounds have become city parks in places like Houston and Austin.  
Elegantly turned out ladies in their decorated buggy for an early 20th Century Juneteenth parade.

Needless to say, large, exuberant gatherings of Black people frightened and alarmed many whites.  There were attempts to discouraged participation, but the celebrations continued.  The Depression took a toll on observances as families were dispersed, and many rural Blacks sought work in cities where employers did not take kindly to taking days off of work.  Younger folks also began to look on the gatherings a simply old fashioned. 
The Civil Rights movement reignited interest in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s.  After Martin Luther King’s assassination the Reverend Ralph Abernathy promoted celebrations of Juneteenth during the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington.  Observances began to spread beyond Texas. 
By 2000 a movement arose to make Juneteenth a holiday of some sort in all states and recognition by the Federal Government.  It is an official state Holiday in Texas and 36 states have granted some sort of recognition.  The celebration has even gathered momentum in Africa and other places around the world. 

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