Juneteenth resonates in US history and the African American experience. On June 19th, 1865 Gen. Gordon Granger led the Union Army into Galveston, Texas, declaring to all that the last enslaved people in the Confederacy were finally free.Less
Juneteenth marks our country’s second independence day. Though it has long been celebrated within the African American community, it is a history that has been marginalized; remaining largely unknown to the wider public. The legacy of Juneteenth shows the value of deep hope and urgent organizing in uncertain times. Lucky visitors to the National Archives can see the original Emancipation Proclamation from June 18-20, on display with other founding documents, like the Declaration of Independence.
The Juneteenth Celebration commemorates one of the most momentous events in American History: the emancipation of the last enslaved African Americans held in bondage in the Confederate States on June 19th, 1865. It had taken over 2 years for news of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and the might of the Union Army necessary to enforce it, to battle its way to Texas. Lincoln finalized the Proclamation while staying at his retreat on the grounds of the Soldier’s Home in Washington, DC.
The Emancipation Proclamation only freed enslaved people in the Confederacy, leaving those in border states in bondage. Even in the Confederacy, the Proclamation held no power until Union soldiers could take control of territory. It wasn’t until months after the last enslaved Americans were freed in Texas in June that ratification of the 13th Amendment, on Dec. 6, 1865, finally declared slavery illegal nationwide. Let’s look back at how news of Emancipation spread, and finally reached Texas.
On “Freedom’s Eve”, or the eve of Jan. 1, 1863, the first Watch Night services took place. That night, enslaved and free African Americans gathered in churches and homes across the country awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect. The carte-de-visite above shows a Watch Night in Boston, MA. Frederick Douglass noted, “a line of messengers was established between the telegraph office and the platform at Tremont Temple,” where he and many others gathered on “watch night.”
At the stroke of midnight prayers were answered, as all enslaved people in the Confederate States were declared legally free. Union soldiers, many of whom were black, marched onto plantations and across cities in the south reading pocket-sized copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, spreading the news. Booker T. Washington, who would grow to become a famed educator, reformer, and spokesperson for African Americans, was an enslaved 9 year old child when Union soldiers declared freedom's arrival.
The enslaved people of the J.J. Smith Plantation were among the first freed by the Proclamation. At the time, the first federally authorized black unit to fight for the Union, the First South Carolina Volunteers, were camped on the land, designated Fort Frederick. But not everyone in Confederate territory would immediately be free. Although the Emancipation Proclamation was made effective in 1863, Confederate states refused to implement the federal legislation. It took the war to secure freedom.
Texas was the westernmost Confederate state and last to surrender. The enslaved in Texas didn’t gain freedom until almost two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. On June 19, 1865 enslaved African Americans in Galveston were notified by the arrival of Union troops under Gen. Gordon Granger that they, along with the more than 250,000 other enslaved black people in the state, were free by executive decree. The proclamation was read aloud here at Ashton Villa.
The post-emancipation period known as Reconstruction (1865-1877), punctuated by the 15th Amendment, was an era of great hope, uncertainty, and struggle. Formerly enslaved people sought to reunify families, establish schools, run for political office, push radical legislation, and even sue slaveholders for compensation. This was nothing short of amazing! Not even a generation out of enslavement, African Americans were inspired and empowered to completely transform their lives and their country.
Juneteenth was celebrated by newly freed African Americans as soon as freedom came. By 1867 the Freedmen's Bureau, a federal agency created to help African Americans transition from slavery to freedom, helped establish the first official Juneteenth celebration, held at Eastwoods Park, one of the few places African Americans could congregate publicly in Austin. Here, a band plays in the park at the1900 celebration.
A few years after freedom came, ministers John Henry "Jack" Yates and Elias Dibble established Emancipation Park with the purchase of ten acres of land in Houston, TX. Today the park continues to serve as a site for memorable Juneteenth celebrations. Here sisters Martha Yates Jones and Pinkie Yates pose on their “Juneteenth Buggy” during the 1908 celebration.