What is Juneteenth?
Americans typically cite the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia at the Appomattox Court House in April 1865 as the official end of the Civil War, but in Border States such as Missouri and in southern states such as Texas the war raged on. In Missouri, Confederate holdouts and guerillas continued to terrorize the local populace while trying to stay a step ahead of federal soldiers tasked with hunting them down. Missouri had been under Union military control for most of the Civil War. Confederate Texans, however, maintained hopes of preserving the rebel cause even after Lee’s surrender. During the Civil War, white planters had moved thousands of slaves to Texas to preserve the “peculiar institution” of slavery and avoid federal military authority. Many enslaved men, women, and children in Texas in 1865 were unaware of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
On June 19, 1865, U.S. Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas with nearly two thousand men and issued General Order Number 3:
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involved 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 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.
Dr. Wilma King, chair of the Department of Black Studies, says more than two hundred thousand Texans were affected by the order.
In an article published in the November 2014 issue of The American Historian, King wrote, “Perhaps the oldest continuous freedom celebration is ‘Juneteenth,’ in commemoration of slavery’s end in Texas. Juneteenth celebrations began in 1867 under the auspices of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Originally, the celebrations focused on political activities, but over time Juneteenth celebrations have become festive events, often including barbeques, music, games, fishing, and rodeos, while still reflecting on and remembering the history associated with the day.”
Although the holiday originated in Texas, King says Juneteenth is now celebrated throughout the country because Texans migrated to other states and took their Juneteenth traditions with them.
In Columbia, Juneteenth was celebrated last weekend at Douglass Park and featured music, games, food, and African American art. Jefferson City hosts a week-long commemoration that also started last weekend. Juneteenth is typically celebrated June 18-19.
King says the emancipation process in the United States actually dates to 1777 when the state of Vermont abolished slavery. Thirty years later, Congress enacted legislation halting the importation of slaves into the United States, with the legislation taking effect on January 1, 1808. In response, a pastor at a black church in Philadelphia suggested the first day of January “be set apart every year, as a day of public thanksgiving for that mercy.”
“There have been emancipation celebrations since 1808 and Juneteenth doesn’t come along until 1867, so Juneteenth is nice but there are lots of other celebrations because there were states that abolished slavery way before the Thirteenth Amendment,” King says. “Native Americans abolished slavery by a treaty in 1866, so slavery wasn’t even over with the Thirteenth Amendment.” The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified December 6, 1865.
In her article, “Juneteenth and Beyond: African American Emancipation Celebrations since 1808,” King wrote, “Ultimately, when we think about the anniversaries associated with the end of slavery in the United States, it is important to recognize that persons of African descent did not experience slavery uniformly. The same may be said for emancipations and the commemorations. Regardless of the differences in their experiences, African Americans created and continue to create time and space for freedom celebrations to remember and celebrate African American history and the role of African Americans in abolishing slavery. These anniversaries allow celebrants to define, revise, and retell the histories of emancipations, to recognize heroes, and to pass holiday traditions down to younger generations.”