Monday is Juneteenth. No, that’s neither a misspelling nor a typographical error. It’s a contraction of June nineteenth, sort of. (For wordsmiths, “Juneteenth” is a portmanteau, the kind of contraction that one gets by squashing two words together, like “smoke” and “fog” to make “smog.”) Many people in this country believe that it should be a national holiday.
Texas made the date a state holiday in 1979. In 1996, Barbara-Rose Collins (D-MI) introduced a bill in Congress to establish the date as “Juneteenth Independence Day,” with the status of a national holiday. Although the bill failed, most states recognize June 19 as a “ceremonial day” or a “day of observance.”
You found out that it’s an important day if you tried to get airline reservations for this weekend. Planes are usually booked solid for several days before and after that date each year, especially flights to Texas or which require a stopover at the Dallas-Fort Worth or Houston airports. This is the weekend when tens of thousands of African Americans will be going “back home” to Texas and other points south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
On June 19, 1865, the provisions of the Emancipation Proclamation were officially declared in Texas. For all intents and purposes, that marked the end of slavery in the United States, officially, if not in practice.
As I hope most Americans understand, the Civil War (1861-1865) began because of the secession of some states (beginning with South Carolina) from the union. There are many public records which indicate that Lincoln’s only purpose in going to war was to preserve the union. But, in September 1862, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and the focus of the war became the abolition of slavery.
Lincoln, himself, may have found slavery to be repugnant, but he could only enforce a proclamation with the approval of his cabinet secretaries, many of whom did not share his views. So, he proposed the document as a war strategy. First, it would hinder the confederacy in getting slaves to assist fighters, and — second — it would discourage foreign aid to the South, the leaders of European nations like Great Britain and France being philosophically opposed to slavery.
A side benefit was that the provisions of the proclamation encouraged slaves to fight for their own freedom. In fact, five months after the document was signed, the War Department established the USCT (United States Colored Troops). By the war’s end, close to a quarter of a million Africans and African Americans were serving in the Union army and navy.
The Emancipation Proclamation stipulated that — if the Southern states did not cease their rebellion — the provisions of the document would go into effect on Jan. 1, 1863. Contrary to what most people think, the Emancipation Proclamation did not put an end to slavery throughout United States. Rather, it targeted only those states or parts of states that were in rebellion against the Union.
So, certain border states where slavery was practiced (Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri) that remained part of the Union were not included. But, slaves would be set free in those specific states, counties, and — in Louisiana — parishes that fought for the Confederacy. Lincoln ordered that slaves held in those areas “shall be … thenceforward and forever, free.” Because Texas was not a battleground, slaves in that state were not affected by the proclamation, unless they escaped to some other part of the country.
When the war ended with the surrender of General Lee’s troops on April 9, 1865, the provisions of the proclamation were put into effect. However, it wasn’t until June 19 of that year that the provisions, recast as General Order No. 3, were read to the people of Texas by General Gordon Granger, standing on the balcony of Ashton Villa in Galveston.
Because the proclamation only applied to places that had been under Confederate control, it did not completely wipe out slavery. However, it raised to a level of national consciousness the reprehensible nature of the practice. In fact, even before the war ended, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed by the U.S. Senate (April 8, 1864) and the House (Jan. 6, 1865).
Like any amendment, it then had to be approved by a two-thirds vote of the states, and that was not accomplished until after the war, Lincoln’s death by assassination, and the imposition of the Emancipation Proclamation. But, on Dec. 18, 1865, Secretary of State William Seward announced its official adoption. The amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Three years later, the Fourteenth Amendment (July 9, 1868) conferred citizenship on all persons born or naturalized in the United States.
And three years after that, the 15th Amendment (Feb. 3, 1870) guaranteed the right to vote to all citizens regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
During the early days of emancipation, freedmen (as former slaves were known) would gather on church grounds to sing, pray, and eat special dishes that were prepared beforehand. But as African Americans gradually became property owners, the partying became much more elaborate, usually welcoming back family and clan members who had moved to other areas to take advantages of whatever employment opportunities existed.
One of the earliest recorded instances of property ownership expressly for the purpose of Juneteenth festivities was the purchase of Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas, for $1,000 by the Rev. Jack Yates in 1872. For decades, annual celebrations were held there, and it became a destination even for African Americans who did not trace their roots to the coastal Texas area. It is still used for the festivities, although it is now owned by the City of Houston.
Around the nation (and, in fact, in many parts of the world), there is a great variety of ways that Juneteenth is celebrated, but by far the most common gathering place is around the barbecue. Attendees include neighbors as well as friends and family. During the late 20th century, it became fashionable to wear traditional African clothes, and that custom is still followed by some participants.
All people who live in this country should celebrate their freedom, but the feeling is much more intense among those whose ancestors had theirs taken from them.