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 where ever 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 cotton export from East Texas, slave owners evidently were pretty successful in keeping their property from learning that they were free.
Junteenth is now the largest and most widespread of all of the local Jubilee celebrations of Emancipation.
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.
On June 19, 1867 Major General Gordon Granger read the order announcing Emancipation in Galveston, Texas.
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.
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 a reading of Gordon’s and 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 games and contests, particularly baseball, races of all sorts, and—particularly in West Texas—rodeos.
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.
Late 19th Century ladies in full finery drive a carriage decorated for a 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.