Quantcast

What Is Juneteenth?

A celebration of the day slaves in Texas were freed — more than two years after Emancipation Proclamation

Henry Louis Gates Jr. | 6/19/2013, 11:21 a.m.
When Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Orders, Number 3 and thus emancipating the slaves of Texas on June 19, ...
Abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass questioned the significance of the Fourth of July to the American slave.

When Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Orders, Number 3 and thus emancipating the slaves of Texas on June 19, 1865, he had no idea that he was also establishing the basis for a holiday, “Juneteenth” (“June” plus “Nineteenth”), today the most popular annual celebration of emancipation from slavery in the United States.

After all, by the time Granger assumed command of the Department of Texas, the Confederate capital in Richmond had fallen; President Lincoln was dead; and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was well on its way to ratification.

But Granger wasn’t just a few months late. The Emancipation Proclamation itself, ending slavery in the Confederacy (at least on paper), had taken effect two and a half years before, and in the interim, close to 200,000 black men had enlisted in the fight. So, formalities aside, wasn’t it all over, literally, but the shouting?

It would be easy to think so in our world of immediate communication, but as Granger and the 1,800 bluecoats under him soon found out, news traveled slowly in Texas. Whatever Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered in Virginia, the Army of the Trans-Mississippi had held out until late May, and even with its formal surrender on June 2, a number of ex-Rebels in the region took to bushwhacking and plunder.

That’s not all that plagued the extreme western edge of the former Confederate States. Since the capture of New Orleans in 1862, slave owners in Mississippi, Louisiana and other points east had been migrating to Texas to escape the Union Army’s reach. More than 150,000 slaves had made the trek west, according to historian Leon Litwack in his book Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. As one former slave he quotes recalled, “ ‘It looked like everybody in the world was going to Texas.’”

When Texas fell and Granger dispatched his now famous order No. 3, it wasn’t exactly instant magic for most of the Lone Star State’s 250,000 slaves. On plantations, masters had to decide when and how to announce the news — or wait for a government agent to arrive — and it was not uncommon for them to delay until after the harvest.

Hardly the recipe for a celebration — which is what makes the story of “Juneteenth” all the more remarkable. Defying confusion and delay, terror and violence, the newly “freed” black men and women of Texas, with the aid of the Freedmen’s Bureau (itself delayed from arriving until September 1865), now had a date to rally around. In one of the most inspiring grassroots efforts of the post-Civil War period, they transformed June 19 from a day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite, “Juneteenth,” beginning one year later in 1866.

 “The way it was explained to me, “one heir to the tradition was quoted in a published essay, “the 19th of June wasn’t the exact day the Negro was freed. But that’s the day they told them that they was free ... And my daddy told me that they whooped and hollered and bored holes in trees with augers and stopped it up with [gun] powder and light and that would be their blast for the celebration.”