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Juneteenth: The Birth of an African American Holiday

General Order No. 3, Texas Emancipation
Proclamation, June 19, 1865
Image Ownership: Public Domain
In a brief 1992 article for the Eugene Register Guard Quintard Taylor explains the origins of the Juneteenth holiday. Part of that article is reprinted below.

Freedom came in many guises to the four million African Americans who had been enslaved at the beginning of the Civil War. Some fortunate black women and men were emancipated as early as 1861 when Union forces captured outlying areas of the Confederacy such as the Sea Islands of South Carolina, the Tidewater area of Virginia (Hampton and Norfolk) or New Orleans, Louisiana from 1861 onward. Other black slaves emancipated themselves by exploiting the disruption of war to run away to freedom, which in some instances was as close as the nearest Union Army camp. President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation liberated all blacks residing in territory captured from the Confederates after January 1, 1863. These slaves did not have to run for their freedom, they merely had to wait for Federal troops to arrive.

Emancipation for the majority of African Americans, however, came only in 1865 when Confederate commander Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Federal forces at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. With that surrender the rebellion was over. News of Lee's surrender spread quickly through the former slave states east of the Mississippi River. Texas, however, was another matter. Isolated from both Union and Confederate forces, Texas, during the Civil War, had become a place of refuge for slaveholders seeking to ensure that their "property" would not hear of freedom. Through April, May, and part of June, 1865, they did not. Finally on June 19, 1865, freedom officially arrived when Federal troops landed at Galveston, Texas. Word of emancipation gradually spread over the state despite the efforts of some slaveholders to maintain slavery.

But African Americans would not be denied the liberty that had eluded them so long. When the news came entire plantations were deserted. Many blacks brought from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Missouri during the War, returned home while Texas freedpersons headed for Galveston, Houston, and other cities where Federal troops were stationed. Although news of emancipation came at different times during that Texas summer of 1865, local blacks gradually settled on June 19 (Juneteenth) as their day of celebration. Beginning in 1866 they held parades, picnics, barbecues, and gave speeches in remembrance of their liberation. By 1900 the festivities had grown to include baseball games, horse races, railroad excursions, and formal balls. By that time Juneteenth had officially become Texas Emancipation Day and was sponsored by black churches and civic organizations. Indeed, Juneteenth had become so respectable that white politicians including various Texas governors addressed the largest gatherings (which sometimes included upwards of 5,000 people) in Houston and Dallas. Juneteenth had surpassed the Fourth of July as the biggest holiday of the year for Texas African Americans.

With the migration of African Americans from Texas to the West Coast particularly during World War II, Juneteenth simultaneously declined in Texas and grew in the emerging black communities of Los Angeles, San Diego, and Oakland in California, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington. And some communities east of Texas such as Washington, D.C., and Birmingham, Alabama, began celebrations as well. But by the 1970s many blacks, including those in Texas, had forgotten the holiday's origins and its significance in African American history.

Sources:
Quintard Taylor, "The Juneteenth Celebration, 1865-1992," Eugene Register-Guard, June 8, 1992, pp. 1D, 4D.

Contributor:

University of Washington, Seattle

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