Earlier this week, I noticed a few people posting on social media about this new “Juneteenth” entry on their Google calendars. They wondered what it was and where it came from. It reminded me of the Lyle Lovett song, “That’s right, you’re not from Texas.”
Growing up in Texas, I’d heard about Juneteenth all my life. But I didn’t know the true meaning or history of the day until the last decade or so. It was shown for a few seconds on the nightly news as a parade and speeches, but the history didn’t fit a sound bite.
Juneteenth, or June 19, has its roots in the aftermath of the Civil War.
The Civil War began in 1861 and raged until Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to Union commander Gen. U.S. Grant on April 9, 1865. Lee’s surrender concluded the most violent conflict to ever occur on our continent. More than 600,000 were killed. But unfortunately, the war was not quite over.
Over and against the objections of its founding leader and governor at the time, Sam Houston, Texas had seceded and joined the Confederacy. Texas was the CSA’s far western state and was remote by the standards of the day, excluded from most of the fighting. Texas was, unfortunately, a slave state at the time. Evil is sometimes legal.
It took a while for word of the war’s outcome to reach across the entire South. Galveston Island, off the Texas coast near the city of Houston, was remote even from most of Texas.
So it took some time for information to spread. On June 19, 1865, Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived on Galveston and read the following proclamation:
“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.”
President Abraham Lincoln had declared the slaves free in his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. But the Union had to win the war to make it real, and it had. Henceforth they were free, as they always should have been.
Slavery, the terrible institution that had condemned millions to undeserved treatment as property, divided the nation, was papered over with the Compromise of 1850, and provided the spark for America’s deadliest war, was finished. The ideal, written by Thomas Jefferson into America’s DNA that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” was a very large step closer to being realized.
June 19 was first celebrated the following year. It came to be known as Liberation Day, Emancipation Day, or Jubilee Day, the latter a reference to the biblical concept of the jubilee. Today many events are called Juneteenth Jubilee.
In ancient Israel, every fiftieth year was the year of liberty, or jubilee, signified by the blowing of a ram’s horn. Leviticus 25 describes what jubilee meant.
“On the Day of Atonement you shall sound the trumpet throughout all your land. And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of itself nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you.”
It’s all significant, but of special note is the part about people returning to their land and to their clan — their family. In those days, both slavery and debt slavery existed. In the jubilee year, debts were forgiven and those enslaved were allowed to return home and start anew. Those who had been forced to sell their land to settle debts would have it restored to them.
It’s also significant that jubilee began the day following the Day of Atonement. That day was reserved for the acknowledgment of sin. So Israel first acknowledged its sins, then freed its most unfortunate and allowed them to return home. Patheos delves deeper into the meanings and importance of jubilee. In short, jubilee meant restoration and freedom.
During the centuries of servitude, an overwhelming majority of African slaves in America had become Christians. Christianity offered the promises of redemption and hope for a better future. It promised reunion with family lost to death or the heinous separation that was endemic with treating humans as property. And it promised freedom — if not in this life, then the next.
Jubilee was familiar to them and was a natural way of understanding what had happened. Over time, the celebrations grew and the name evolved. It’s now simply Juneteenth.
Large celebrations on June 19 began in 1866 and continued regularly into the early 20th century. African-Americans treated this day like the Fourth of July, and the celebrations contained similar events. In the early days, Juneteenth celebrations included a prayer service, speakers with inspirational messages, reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, stories from former slaves, food, red soda water, games, rodeos and dances.
The celebration of June 19 as Emancipation Day spread from Texas to the neighboring states of Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma. It also appeared in Alabama, Florida and California as African-American Texans migrated.
In many parts of Texas, freedmen and women purchased land, or “emancipation grounds,” for Juneteenth gatherings. Examples include: Emancipation Park in Houston, purchased in 1872; what is now Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia; and Emancipation Park in Austin.
Celebration of Juneteenth declined during World War II but returned in 1950 Texas State Fair Grounds in Dallas. Interest and participation fell away during the late 1950s and 1960s as attention focused on expansion of freedom for African-Americans. In the 1970s Juneteenth revived in some communities. For example, in Austin the Juneteenth celebration returned in 1976 after a 25-year hiatus. Texas House Bill 1016 passed in the 66th Legislature, Regular Session, declared June 19, “Emancipation Day in Texas,” a legal state holiday effective starting in 1980. Since that time, the celebration of Juneteenth continues across the state of Texas with parades, picnics and dancing.
June 19 represents a momentous day for America. Born with the grave sin of slavery—not invented here but brought here by the colonial powers—the Day of Atonement had come and passed as a bloody war between the states. Jubilee had at last arrived. The captives were now and forever free.
June 19 should have been and still could be a unifying day for all Americans. Our nation paid a great price for slavery, probably more than any other country ever has — sacrificed a generation of young men. Cities had been placed under siege or burned. A vast section of the nation lay in ruin. Bitterness simmered.
Emancipation and integration should have commenced from there, but the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, led to a largely unsuccessful Reconstruction. After that period, the old hatreds and prejudices that had been suppressed returned for vengeance. Jim Crow and segregation, the Democrats and the Klan driving black and white Republicans in the South from office — sometimes at the point of a gun — lynchings, all of those terrible things took more lives and served to undermine the atonement and jubilee that should have followed. Equality and freedom were delayed for another century. We’re still paying the price for spurning the moment of redemption offered by the end of the war.
Should Juneteeth be a national holiday? The fact that Juneteenth falls so close to Independence Day could provide an important moment each year. We would have two summer holidays as odes to America and our history, both its horrors and its glories. Juneteenth could be a day of reconciliation and understanding that honors the sacrifice and the peace Americans of all backgrounds long for. It could honor the promise of freedom for all that our founders fought for and wrote into our nation’s founding. Juneteenth might make us remember things we should remember, and see each other as equals, and unite rather than divide.