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What is Juneteenth and Why is it Celebrated?
- Juneteenth is a holiday celebrated throughout the United States on June 19th. It is also called Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day and Emancipation day and it celebrates the abolishment of Slavery.
- It is one of the most important events of African American history. Some historians call Juneteenth the Second Independence Day or African American Independence day.
- Africans were transported to the American colonies throughout the 17th and 18th centuries as slaves. The Civil War which ended in May 1865, brought freedom to all African Americans in the territory of the United States.
- The delayed freedom of the slaves in Texas is widely remembered and celebrated as the holiday of Juneteenth. The name for this holiday comes from joining the month and date of the event, June and 19th of 1865, a month after the civil war ended.
- Union Army General, Gordon Granger arrived in Texas on June 19th, 1865, and announced that all slaves are free. This was the first time the slaves in Texas learned about the Emancipation Proclamation that Abraham Lincoln enforced on January 1st, 1863.
- This day is celebrated to mark the freedom of all slaves including the ones who did not know about their freedom.
What is the Historical Background and Context
- The Civil War of the United States of America against the Confederate States of America began in 1861 and lasted through 1865. The main reason for the war was opposing views on the institution of slavery.
- Chattel Slavery was primary to the economy of southern states. Slaves were used as farm labor, artisans, and house servants. To harvest the cotton plantations profitably, it was critical to use the slave labor of African Americans.
- The northern states were industrially driven and viewed slavery as unethical and wrong. They supported President Lincoln in the emancipation of the African Americans and believed that all men are born free.
- Several Abolitionist movements, like the one headed by William Garrison, grew in numbers across the country and threatened the southerners and their economy. Southerners viewed their slaves as property hence, the abolition of slavery was unacceptable to them.
- President Abraham Lincoln’s Anti-Slavery stance caused many southern states to leave the Union and seek independence. They claimed that the federal government does not have the power to end slavery.
- President Lincoln refused to acknowledge the southern states as an independent nation. The firing by southern forces upon Fort Sumter, South Carolina on April 12, 1861, formally began the war.
- The Civil War was the bloodiest conflict in the history of the USA. Over 600,000 people died in the conflict.
- On January 1, 1863, the Proclamation of Emancipation was issued which freed the slaves in the states that were in rebellion with the union.
It read as follows:
“That on the first day of January in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”
- In many states there was heavy fighting or the presence of large troops, however, in some other areas slavery continued unabated.
- Many plantation owners from Mississippi and Louisiana migrated to Texas along with their slaves after the capture of New Orleans, to escape the war which increased the enslaved population of Texas by thousands.
- In 1865, there were about 250,000 slaves in Texas. While most of them resided in rural areas, over 1000 lived in both Houston and Galveston and several hundred were located in larger towns.
- The Proclamation of emancipation changed the legal status under federal law of 3.5 million African Americans from enslaved to free, but in the states where the federal troops had not advanced in, this news was kept secret. Texas was one of them.
- Slavery had been outlawed from Texas with the Proclamation of Emancipation in 1863, however, due to the low presence of Union soldiers in Texas the enforcement was delayed by 2 and half years. At that time, communication and enforcement of laws largely depended on the military presence in the states.
- The owners of the plantations suppressed the news and continued to enslave the free African Americans to secure cotton harvests until the end of the war.
- Similarly, the news about the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at the old Appomattox courthouse on April 9, 1865, was kept under wraps until the surrender of the Western Army of Trans-Mississippi on June 2.
- Finally, on June 19th, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived on the island of Galveston and issued General Order no. 3 which began the enforcement of the emancipation and ensured a peaceful transition of power.
It read as follows:
“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 order abolished slavery, however, it urged people to stay with their masters and work on wages instead. This was not desired by the freed slaves which is why they attempted to escape from their masters at their own peril.
- There are reports of African Americans being shot dead or hung on trees near river Sabine after they tried to act on the news of Independence.
How did Slavery End in the United States?
- Freedom didn’t immediately come to the African Americans of Texas, as the masters of the plantations forced their slaves to work until after harvest.
- In many cases, they were not freed until a government agent arrived. At the time, there was scarce Union Military presence in the region.
- In some other cases, violence and intimidation were used. The military was trusted with the protection and basic well being of the freed slaves, however, many plantation owners refused to accept the abolition of slavery and formed violent groups to discourage the slaves from leaving the farms.
- Nonetheless, slowly and steadily many slaves were freed and they began looking for their family or moved to the more friendly northern states. This event came to be known as ‘the scatter’.
- According to reports, the last slaves of Texas were freed after the hanging of their master Alex Simpson, in 1868.
- The independence of African Americans in Texas was given final legal status in a series of Texas Supreme Court decisions from 1868 through 1874.
- Juneteenth is remembered as ‘the end of slavery’, however, the slaves of Delaware and Kentucky didn’t get emancipated until December 18, 1865.
- The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, 1865, abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime.
- This was the first of the three Reconstruction Amendments adopted after the civil war which guaranteed freedom and equality of all people irrespective of color, race, or previous condition of servitude. The last amendment was ratified in 1870.
What kind of Challenges did the Freed People Face?
- While some people stayed to work in the new system of employer and hired labor in Texas, many people moved to neighboring states like Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma to live as free people with their families. Many more chose to move to the postbellum United States.
- Many attempts were made to block the new rights of African Americans, including unlawful exclusion and segregation.The low number of troops in Texas meant slow and inconsistent enforcement which resulted in forced labor, beatings, lynching, and murders of slaves who tried to escape.
- Their voting rights were challenged either by intimidation or by exclusion due to illiteracy and other disabilities.
- The Freedmen’s Bureau or the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands was the government agency trusted with developing a social system for the former slaves in Texas.
- Apart from providing clothing, food, and shelter to the destitute and suffering refugees their duty was to establish schools and employment for the African American population.
- The celebration of the first anniversary of the order was challenged by segregation laws that prohibited African Americans from using public parks and places.
- This changed in 1872 when Richard Allen, Richard Brock, Jack Yates, and Elias Dibble from the Freedmen’s Bureau bought 4 acres of land at $800. They commemorated the End of Slavery in America by naming the land the Emancipation Park. It was mainly used for Juneteenth celebrations.
- Emancipation Park was donated to the city of Houston in 1916. It was the only public place in the Houston area which was open to African Americans until the 1950s. In 2019, it became a UNESCO Slave Route Project site and Juneteenth celebrations regularly take place there.
- Juneteenth celebrations dwindled during the time of Jim Crow Laws although the Civil Rights Movement reignited them when the Poor People’s March was organized on the same day in 1968 by Martin Luther King Jr.
Celebrations and Symbolism
- The public announcement of the General order no. 3 in Galveston was met by celebrations and the following year Freedmen in Texas organized the first annual celebration known as the jubilee day.
- The early celebrations of Juneteenth were used as political rallies to instruct the freed people about their voting rights.
- The holiday was first celebrated in 1866 as church-centered community gatherings, but over time the holiday included food festivals, African American Arts, Miss Juneteenth contests, street fairs, rodeos, concerts, and parades. Local celebrations include public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation and singing cultural songs such as ‘many thousands gone’ and ‘swing low sweet chariot’.
- The tradition of Juneteenth celebrations was carried by the newly freed slaves from Texas to the other parts of the USA during The Great Migration. Over time it has become the most famous Independence movement in African American History.
- Though the holiday is not recognized as a federal holiday, it does have its own flag. It is full of optimistic symbolism. The blue, red, and white are colors of American unity and heritage and the two stars represent Texas and its emancipation. It was designed by L.J. Graf.
- Juneteenth is celebrated across the USA especially by African Americans and the holiday presents an opportunity to exhibit Black History and Culture.
- Strawberry soda is the traditional drink for the Juneteenth holiday and barbecues are set up in all locations of the event. Works of Maya Angelou and Ralph Ellison commonly feature in the celebrations across the country and songs such as ‘Lift every voice and sing’ are sung by young and old alike.
Other Important Facts
- Union Army General Gordon Granger had arrived in Galveston, Texas with about 2000 soldiers to bring Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Emancipation into effect.
- President Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, just a few months before the Civil War ended and the Proclamation was brought into effect in Texas.
- The advancement of the Union Army brought the first news of the Proclamation to slaves in Texas. For 2 and a half years the plantation owners reaped the wages of the African Americans even after freedom.
- Juneteenth is a state or ceremonial holiday in all states except Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Despite several attempts, Juneteenth is still not a federal holiday.
- Texas declared Juneteenth as a legal state holiday effective 1980 and was the first to do so.
- Army General Gordon Granger is remembered for two things above all, the Battle Of Chickamauga and as the father of the annual Juneteenth celebration.
- It has been 155 years since the first time Juneteenth was celebrated. In the United States of America, Juneteenth is the oldest holiday that signifies the end of slavery for African Americans.
Image source: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Juneteenth