Sunday, June 19, 2016

This day, “Juneteenth”

According to, “Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.” As a native Texan I grew up thinking this was the normal Emancipation Day celebration rather than a holiday that originated and was mostly established in Texas. There is a named “Emancipation Day” on April 16, which is a legal holiday in Washington D.C.[1] It commemorates the day which president Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act, April 16, 1862. Florida celebrates May 20 -- May 20, 1865 being the first reading or official announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Florida.

Texas’s Juneteenth (combining “June” and “nineteenth” to form one word) recognizes June 19, 1865. On that day Union Major General Gordon Granger issued “General Order Number 3” in Galveston, Texas.

General Order Number 3:
“The people 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, become that between employer and hired labor. The freed are advised to remain 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.”
The Emancipation Proclamation (well-known but often misunderstood) was issued September 22, 1862. It took effect January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation “freed” slaves only in states that had seceded from the Union, and in fact only in those over which the United States had no control. It freed no slaves in the slave states that were loyal to the Union and even exempted the parts of the Confederacy that were then under Union control! It freed slaves on paper, under the hope of final military victory. Its design made abolition of slavery the new goal of the war between the Union and the Confederacy. These two days may be celebrated by some, but seldom seem to be recognized as Emancipation Days in the way Juneteenth is.

Former slaves in Texas embraced June 19th as their own “Independence Day”. Though some slaveowners drug their feet in recognizing and applying “General Order Number 3,” the former slaves of Texas nevertheless had a date to recognize and transformed into a celebration by 1866. To me it seems that “Juneteenth” went through a period when some black leaders seemed almost ashamed of it, then blossomed and grew once again. In 1979 the Texas State Legislature passed a bill introduced by Representative Al Edwards of Houston, to make “Juneteenth” a state holiday. Governor Bill Clements signed it and it became official on January 1, 1980. “Juneteenth” was the first emancipation celebration that officially acheived state recognition. From there it has spread to other parts of the United States. For example, it was recognized by Oklahoma in 1994.

“While national black leaders continued to debate the importance of remembering other milestone anniversaries, the freed people of Texas went about the business of celebrating their local version of Emancipation Day.” (Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)

[1] As a legal holiday, it is relatively new. Legislation was signed to make Emancipation Day an official public holiday (in the District of Columbia) January 4, 2005.


Warren Steel said...

There is still a tradition in Columbus, Mississippi of celebrating emancipation on * May annually. The celebration is called "Eight o' May" or simply "Ada May." Like the Texas observance, it marks the date when Union officers informed the community that former slaves were now free. I expect this local day will fade away as Juneteenth becomes more popular--Oxford, Mississippi, for example, had a Juneteenth celebration.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Thanks, Warren. I was not aware of the "Eight o' May" celebration. Found this very brief post about it. Will try to learn more later. Such various local traditions are very interesting, and it is a shame when they pass out of memory.