A very special date is arriving soon. It encompasses both a celebration and a step back in history.
Many African Americans and Caucasians will gather in municipalities across this great land celebrating Juneteenth. Celebrators will participate in weekend long events, including a reciting of poetry, singing and music of all genres (symbolic of the past and a hopeful future), ethnic dances, foods of all ethnic origins, a parade, a fashion show, and the telling of stories and skits about the origin and future of Juneteenth, commemorated annually on June 19. The first know celebration of the end of slavery by African Americans happened in 1865 in the state of Texas.
To add contextual to the history of Juneteenth, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation declaring all persons held as slaves within states that seceded from the Union were free.
On April 8, 1864, the Senate agreed and voted to add a Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment abolished slavery in every state. On January 31, 1865, the House of Representatives voted and agreed to add the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, making slavery illegal in all states.
On March 3, 1865, Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands to aid in the transition from slavery to freedom. April 9, 1863 the Civil War ended with the battle fought by Confederacy General Robert L. Lee at the McLean House in the village of Appomattox Court House in Virginia.
June 19, 1865 Major General Gordon Granger arrived at Galveston, Texas, with the news the Civil War was over and all the slaves were free.
So what delayed the news that the war was over? There were two factors that prevented the new of the war had ended. During the war, the Union soldiers could not get past the Confederate troops and enter Texas to tell the slaves about the Emancipation Proclamation.
Then, when the war was over and slavery was officially illegal, plantation owners still did not tell their slaves that they were free. As a result, the slaves in Texas did not know they were free until Major General Granger’s announcement. This is why his arrival in Texas is known as the day that the slaves were freed, and is celebrated as the first Juneteenth!
The first Juneteenth was only celebrated in the African American community and mostly took place in churches or on donated land. (Some landowners would not allow their newly freed workers to use their property.) Eventually, in the 1890s, two sites: Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas, and Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia, Texas, were purchased specifically for holding Juneteenth celebrations.
During the early 1900s, interest in celebrating Juneteenth declined. Awareness of Juneteenth increased again during the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The issues of equal rights and economic equality inspired African American to begin celebrating Juneteenth again.
Throughout the next several years, African American Texas state legislator Al Edwards helped to increase awareness of Juneteenth until it was finally declared an official state holiday in Texas on January 1, 1980.
While writing this article, I have felt many emotions alternately from despair to jubilation, from pain to joy and from grief to pride. It must have been a surreal experience in 1865 for a slave to awaken to the news of freedom.
In today’s society, Juneteenth is observed as a day for celebrating African American freedom and achievement. One thing is certain: What gives me hope and a desire to keep bringing awareness of this event is Juneteenth has morphed into a more national, symbolic celebration of respect for all cultures.