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Juneteenth – Historical sketch, development of observances and designation as a national holiday

Patrick B. McGuigan

“Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. From its Galveston, Texas origin in 1865, the observance of June 19th as the African American Emancipation Day has spread across the United States and beyond.”

That’s according to a website, simply named “Juneteeth,” that’s been around some years. 

The “Texas origin” origins refers to the day that Major General Gordon Granger of the U.S. Army landed at Galveston on the Gulf of Mexico coast. It was two-and-a-half years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declaring enslaved persons in the Confederate States (then warring against the United States) were free.

Only a handful of people in Texas had ever heard about the proclamation. Gordon issued an order (which through the work of Major F.W. Avery, his adjutant) was printed in regional newspapers).

It declared: 

“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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

What I believe is the original Juneteenth website reports, “Today Juneteenth commemorates African American freedom and emphasizes education and achievement. It is a day, a week, and in some areas a month marked with celebrations, guest speakers, picnics and family gatherings. It is a time for reflection and rejoicing. It is a time for assessment, self-improvement and for planning the future. Its growing popularity signifies a level of maturity and dignity in America long overdue. In cities across the country, people of all races, nationalities and religions are joining hands to truthfully acknowledge a period in our history that shaped and continues to influence our society today. Sensitized to the conditions and experiences of others, only then can we make significant and lasting improvements in our society.”

The narrative continues, concerning the days just after Granger’s Galveston landing, “While many lingered to learn of this new employer to employee relationship, many left before these offers were completely off the lips of their former ‘masters’ – attesting to the varying conditions on the plantations and the realization of freedom. Even with nowhere to go, many felt that leaving the plantation would be their first grasp of freedom. North was a logical destination and for many it represented true freedom, while the desire to reach family members in neighboring states drove some into Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Settling into these new areas as free men and women brought on new realities and the challenges of establishing a heretofore non-existent status for black people in America.

“Recounting the memories of that great day in June of 1865 and its festivities would serve as motivation as well as a release from the growing pressures encountered in their new territories. The celebration of June 19th was coined ‘Juneteenth’ and grew with more participation from descendants. The Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.

Elsewhere the story continued, “In the early years, little interest existed outside the African American community in participation in the celebrations. In some cases, there was outwardly exhibited resistance by barring the use of public property for the festivities. Most of the festivities found themselves out in rural areas around rivers and creeks that could provide for additional activities such as fishing, horseback riding and barbecues.

“Often church grounds were the site for such activities. Eventually, as African Americans became land owners, land was donated and dedicated for these festivities. One of the earliest documented land purchases in the name of Juneteenth was organized by Rev. Jack Yates.

This fund-raising effort yielded $1000 and made possible the purchase of Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas. In Mexia, the local Juneteenth organization purchased Booker T. Washington Park, which had become the Juneteenth celebration site in 1898. There are accounts of Juneteenth activities being interrupted and halted by white landowners demanding that their laborers return to work. However, it seems most allowed their workers the day off and some even made donations of food and money. For decades these annual celebrations flourished, growing continuously with each passing year. In Booker T. Washington Park, as many as 20,000 African Americans once attended during the course of a week, making the celebration one of the state’s largest.”

Observance of the day faded for several decades, including during the decades of the “Black Migration” from the south into border and northern states.

During the Civil Rights movement’s heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, resurging interest in the relevance of June 19 featured “student demonstrators involved in the Atlanta civil rights campaign in the early 1960’s, who wore Juneteenth freedom buttons. Again in 1968, Juneteenth received another strong resurgence through the Poor Peoples March to Washington D.C. Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s call for people of all races, creeds, economic levels and professions to come to Washington to show support for the poor.

Many of these attendees returned home and initiated Juneteenth celebrations in areas previously absent of such activities.”

Back in Texas, where Juneteenth originated, state Rep. Albert Ely “Al” Edwards, who lived from 1937-2020, pressed to make it a state holiday. He succeeded early in his legislative tenure, and the Lone Star State’s observances began in 1980.

Edwards (based in Houston) became a major advocate for broader observance of the event and before long was known as “Mr. Juneteenth.”

Edwards served in the Texas Legislature for a total of three decades, from 1978-2007; then 2009-2011. Winning most of his elections easily, he got him in trouble with some for working on issues other than the priorities of activist groups.

His one defeat came to another black leader, Borris Miles, who had assailed Edwards for being a “Craddick D.” (That was a reference to Edwards frequent work with Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick.)

When Edwards died last year in a time of social and cultural tumult, Juneteenth was on its way to national holiday designation. Now-Senator Miles remembered his former rival:

“I thank Al for all that he did for our community. For without the drive of leaders in the face of evil, we would be nowhere. We must continue the fight of our forefathers and mothers to rise and lift each other up.”  

In 1999, the posthumously published novel “Juneteenth” by Oklahoma native Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) played a part in renewing interest in the significance of the June 19 date in American history.

Black writer Willie Richardson lamented (in a column for The Patriot Post) that the weekend of June 19-21, 2020, had turned violent in major cities across the country.

In Oklahoma, several gatherings for Juneteenth were peaceful.

In the U.S. Senate, Kamala Harris of California, a Democrat and allies spoke of pushing to make it a national holiday. Meanwhile, Republican John Cornyn of Texas encouraged his own version of a holiday designation.

In Washington this week, overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate passed legislation to designate June 19 a new federal holiday.

President Joe Biden has given most federal employees the day off, in anticipation of his signature on the new law.

Happy Juneteenth!

Hard to read, this published announcement in 1865 helped spread the word that the Civil War was over and enslaved people in Texas were free.
State Rep. Al Edwards of Houston, Texas, became known as “Mr. Juneteenth” for his advocacy of making June 19 a holiday. He was successful in his own state, and campaigned for making it a national holiday until his death in 2020. Photo: Defender Network.
“Juneteenth,” the posthumously-published last novel by Oklahoma native Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), helped rejuvenate interest in the holiday.
Ralph Ellison