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Juneteenth: The Celebration of African American Freedom

I grew up in the "Land of Lincoln" in a rural town near Springfield, Illinois. It had always been common knowledge that it was on January 1, 1863 that Abraham Lincoln freed all slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation. Though, it had never occurred to me that this was not the case in Texas. It was not until June 19, 1865 when the Union General Gordon Granger arrived at Galveston, Texas with the good news. His first order of business in Galveston was to read the General Order Number 3 to the people of Texas freeing the last 250, 000 slaves, which read as follows:

"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 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." ( 1).

Note that this was a whole two and a half years after Lincoln's abolition of slavery. No one can be truly certain why there was such a delay of the news. There are some ideas explaining the reason such as one of a messenger who had been killed on his journey to Texas bringing the news of freedom. Another is that the enslavers wanted to hold onto their labor force for their plantations so they purposely kept their mouths shut about the news. Or there was the idea that federal troops waited until the plantation owners could benefit from just one more cotton harvest (McPherson 61). More than anything, the cause would be due to such poor political socialization. Newspapers were only local at the time and there obviously was no television so it took a long time for the word to travel. Two and a half years is pretty extreme though, which is why there really isn't a good explanation for the delay. Still, everyone was completely shocked by what they had just heard. Immediately the freed slaves were fleeing from the plantations and many even headed to the North. The date of June 19th was later shortened to become known as "Juneteenth": celebrating African American freedom.

The celebration of Juneteenth grew more and more over time. The larger festivities began in 1866 and continued annually through the beginning of the Twentieth Century. It became known as "[...] a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members [...]. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date" ( 2). Yet in the early years of the celebration, the festivities were regulated by authorities. Often times, people would be forced to the outskirts of the city to celebrate. Some of the events that went on at these celebrations included: "[...] a prayer service, speakers with inspirational messages, stories from former slaves, reading of the emancipation proclamation, lots of food, red soda water, games, rodeos, and dances" (Ellison 61). Interestingly, the dress was an important element in the early days of the Juneteenth celebrations. It has been a tradition to throw ragged clothing into rivers and creeks. This is because during the first days of the emancipation celebrations, the former slaves would toss their "[...] ragged garments into the creeks and rivers to adorn clothing taken from the plantations belonging to their former 'masters'" ( 2).

As the celebrations grew in Texas over the years, people began to have their own festivities in neighboring states as well. Many African Americans had migrated to states such as Alabama, Louisiana, and Oklahoma which was creating a bigger word to celebrate freedom from slavery. As the numbers increased, so did the money for Juneteenth celebrations. African Americans began to buy their own property. Some of these land owners donated pieces of it specifically for Juneteenth celebrations. "One of the earliest documented land purchases in the name of Juneteenth was organized by the Reverend Jack Yates. This fund-raising effort yielded $1, 000 and the purchase of Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas" ( 3). There are other tracts of land that have been donated for the cause such as in Austin and in Mexia in Limestone County (The Handbook of Texas 1). The area designated to Juneteenth in Limestone County is called Booker T. Washington Park. During an annual celebration in this park it was said that more than 30, 000 blacks gathered to recollect and to remember their family history (Handbook of Texas 2).

By the early 1960s there was a large decline in the celebration of Juneteenth. People simply began to lose interest in the celebration with the push for integration during the Civil Rights movement. Earlier, African Americans were celebrating freedom from slavery, but soon found out that they were not so free at all. Because of the segregation during this time period blacks felt they did not have much to celebrate. Economic and cultural aspects had a large influence on the decline of the celebration as well. "Classroom and textbook education in lieu of traditional home and family-taught practices stifled the interest of the youth due to less emphasis and detail on the activities of former slaves. Classroom text books proclaimed Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 as the date signaling the ending of slavery--and little or nothing on the impact of General Granger's arrival on June 19th" ( 3). Another reason was that because so many families were forced to move to urban areas to find work. Most, if not all, employers would not allow the African Americans time off from work to celebrate the holiday. So it was not possible



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