KJLH joins with communities in Southern California to celebrate Juneteenth with free and open events »
“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 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 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.” – General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865
What is Juneteenth?
When Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued the above order, he had no idea that, in establishing the Union Army’s authority over the people of Texas, he was also establishing the basis for a holiday, “Juneteenth” (“June” plus “nineteenth”), today the most popular annual celebration of emancipation from slavery in the United States. After all, by the time Granger assumed command of the Department of Texas, the Confederate capital in Richmond had fallen; the “Executive” to whom he referred, President Lincoln, was dead; and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was well on its way to ratification.
The Emancipation Proclamation, which is the document which ended slavery in the Confederacy (at least on paper), had taken effect two-and-a-half years before. It’s easy to assume that the Emancipation Proclamation would have taken effect immediately, but as Granger and the 1,800 bluecoats under him soon found out, news traveled slowly in Texas. And since the fall of New Orleans in 1862, slave owners in Mississippi, Louisiana and other points east had been migrating to Texas to escape the Union Army’s reach along with more than 150,000 slaves.
When Texas fell and Granger dispatched his now famous order No. 3, it wasn’t exactly instant magic for most of the Lone Star State’s 250,000 slaves. On plantations, masters had to decide when and how to announce the news – or wait for a government agent to arrive – and it was not uncommon for them to delay until after the harvest. Even in Galveston city, the ex-Confederate mayor flouted the Army by forcing the freed people back to work, as historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner details in her comprehensive essay, “Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory, in Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas.”
Those who acted on the news did so at their peril. As quoted in Leon Litwack’s book Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, former slave Susan Merritt recalled, ” ‘You could see lots of niggers hangin’ to trees in Sabine bottom right after freedom, ’cause they cotch ’em swimmin’ ‘cross Sabine River and shoot ’em.’ ” In one extreme case, according to Hayes Turner, a former slave named Katie Darling continued working for her mistress another six years (She ” ‘whip me after the war jist like she did ‘fore,’ ” Darling said).
In one of the most inspiring grassroots efforts of the post-Civil War period, the newly freed former slaves transformed June 19 from a day of disregarded military orders into their own annual celebration, “Juneteenth,” beginning one year later in 1866.
And so, we observe Juneteenth as a recognition of freedom. Finally. Free.
Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery – Leon Litwack
Many Rivers to Cross – Henry Louis Gates