Thursday, June 19, 2014

Juneteenth - A Brief History

Today is Juneteenth. This is the day when slaves in Galveston, Texas were first informed of their freedom from slavery; over 2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the subsequent passage of the 13th Amendment. It’s sad that this was not part of the curriculum in school when I was a kid. The way things were taught back then held that the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. Period. That was the correct answer to the question.

It even comes up that way on the Andy Griffith Show, in the episode “Andy Discovers America.” And that was a show which took place in the South! The story of Juneteenth is such a joyful one that I am surprised at how it escaped the attention of most folks until the late 1960’s and the rise of African-Americanism as a recognized field of study. Remember that the next time someone says that we don’t need a Black History Month.

Basically the story of Juneteenth is that it is the day in 1865 when the slaves in Galveston, Texas; and the western states in general; found out that they were no longer slaves. Imagine that. You wake up one day and find out you’re not a slave any longer. Where do you go? What do you do? So, mixed up with all the joy there had to be a certain sense of apprehension about the immediate future. It’s the exact reversal of you and I waking up tomorrow and being told that we are now slaves.  Either scenario is almost unimaginable; though the former is preferable to the latter!

Also known as Freedom Day, or Emancipation Day, it is celebrated to commemorate the Emancipation of the last remaining slaves in America.  General Order #3 which was the legal instrument by which the Federal Government informed not only the newly freed slaves; but also the government of Texas in general, that slavery was at an end. Texas was the last of the former Confederate States to comply with the Emancipation Proclamation, even after hostilities had ended.

This was largely due to the fact that the Confederate States of America had never formally agreed to an end to the war; either by treaty or proclamation. The Confederate States were left without any leadership after their government in Richmond fell and the leaders fled. The effect of that is still felt today. President Johnson would proclaim the War Between the States to be at an end the following year; in May 1866.

On June 18, 1865, General Gordon Granger, along with about 2,000 troops came to Galveston and took control of the state, Primarily the reason for this was the reluctance of the state to end slavery within its jurisdiction. The following day the General issued the Order while standing on the balcony of Ashton Villa.

This is the text of “General Order No. 3” which was read on June 19, 1865;

“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.”

By the late 1920’s and early 1930’s many African- Americans had begun the Great Migration from the Southern and Western states to the big cities. The decline in Juneteenth celebrations occurred during this period. Just as slavery had robbed them of their African customs in the past; industry in the free world would now rob them of some of their new customs as freed persons.

It was actually the Poor People’s March in 1968 which put this colorful and lively holiday back on the cultural map. Although not an actual Federal Holiday, the date is observed in almost all of the states in some fashion. 

The photo at the top was taken in Galveston on Juneteenth circa 1900.

No comments:

Post a Comment