Juneteenth

“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.”  (General Orders No. 3 and related GOs) 

This 156-year-old text is a part of Executive Orders No. 3, one of four such executive orders delivered in Galveston, Texas by Major General Gordon Granger, Headquarters, Military Division of the Southwest, District of Texas. He read these orders two months after the Confederate surrender and President Lincoln’s assassination.  These executive orders, especially the one we celebrate on its June 19th anniversary, were to remind former slave masters that their “peculiar institution” was destroyed and that they ought to let their fellow citizens, the former slaves, hear the good news.   

Juneteenth, a celebration so described by combining June and 19th, also may be referred to as “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day,” or “Emancipation Day.”  Of Texas origin, this holiday to celebrate the emancipation of slaves is now enjoyed around the United States.  On 17 June 2021, a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday was signed into law by President Joseph Biden. 

The day is celebrated in myriad ways, including prayer meetings, family gatherings, pilgrimage to Galveston, parades, festivals, musical events, and more.  During the years of Reconstruction and Southern Revanchism, malignant local restrictions grew to curb this celebration.  This prompted African-American leaders, ministers, and businessmen to carve out safe places for events to take place.  One of the more famous of these responses was the 1872 purchase in Houston of ten acres of land to create “Emancipation Park,” the location for the city’s annual Juneteenth celebration.   

But Juneteenth is not our oldest or first celebration of emancipation.  That honor goes to Gallipolis, Ohio, where emancipation was celebrated on 22 September 1863 and every year since.  The significance of this date is that it marked the one-year anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation Order.  There are additional dates on which to celebrate the end of slavery and contemplate the nation’s wounds.  These include: 

  • 1 January (1863), the day the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. 
  • 31 January (1865), Congress passes the 13th Amendment, officially abolishing the institution of slavery. 
  • 6 December (1865), the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery is ratified. 
  • 18 December (1865), the 13th Amendment is proclaimed. 
  • 9 April (1865), Confederate General Lee’s surrender to US. General Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. 
  • 3 April (1865), Richmond Virginia fell to Union Forces. 
  • 16 April (1862), slavery is abolished in Washington, D.C. 

In 2009, Ohio became the 35th State to recognize Juneteenth. Passed as Senate Bill 243 of the 127th General Assembly, opens a new window, “The nineteenth day of June is designated as ‘Juneteenth National Freedom Day’ to acknowledge the freedom, history, and culture that June 19, 1865, the day on which the last slaves in the United States were set free in Texas, has come to symbolize.” 

The problem of race and the pursuit of liberty in Ohio, both before, opens a new window and after, opens a new window the Civil War, are interesting topics to investigate.  My own study has led to the discovery of a very unusual practice undertaken on an annual basis by the Ohio Governor.  On September 22nd each year the Governor pardoned an imprisoned felon in recognition of the Emancipation Proclamation and as part of state-wide commemorations.  Below are examples from three Ohio newspapers:  

Portsmouth Daily Times
22 September 1926 2-6 

Youngstown Daily Vindicator
21 September 1915, page 21, column 1

Urbana, Ohio, The Democrat 
22 September 1920, page 6, column 5

Several questions need to be answered (and I will share the results on the library’s Genealogy and Local History webpage): Why were pardons granted for the stated purpose?  When were the first and last pardons given?  Why did the practice end? And what were the political dynamics?   

To gain more knowledge about the Juneteenth holiday, go to these resources for a start: 

Return to Galveston 

On 19 June 1865, was it reasonable that the Texans weren’t aware of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862?  Two months after their defeat, did they still need to be told that slavery was “gone with the wind?”  It’s probable that even some slaves knew, and were waiting for a de facto change in their property status.   

Whatever the cause of their ignorance, it wasn’t due to unavailable infrastructure.  Telegraph wires aptly spread the word about President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and, indeed, the end of the war.  But in Texas and throughout the southern states, delaying freedom was not only practical, it was an expression of rebel recalcitrance, and it foreshadowed what was to come.   

Underscoring slavery’s core belief in using the bodies of people of color to create and keep white wealth, news of liberation was deliberately delayed.  Crops would be planted, profit would be secured, before anyone reaped freedom.  And if former slave masters couldn’t have slavery, moving forward they’d use state legislative power to ensure that newly freed men and women had limited freedom and lived in a segregated society.  White supremacy would fester, despite emancipation, the de jure end to slavery, and constitutional amendments ratified during Reconstruction. 

As this is a matter for further study, I invite the reader to locate and absorb the many books and resources that discuss Reconstruction, opens a new windowBlack Codes, opens a new windowJim Crow Laws, opens a new window, and Civil Rights Legislation, opens a new window.   

A deep reading on these subjects, as they echo in today’s news headlines, will help one understand why Juneteenth, a day to smile, is also a time to hold back tears.    

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