This is a reprint of a column which first appeared in the Southeast Texas Record on June 18, 2009.
More than 140 years ago, an abrasive Union general from New York delivered a message in Galveston that would change the course of the lives of African American Texans forever.
Upon his arrival to Galveston on June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger, who had recently been given command of the Department of Texas, immediately read General Order No. 3, the Texas Emancipation Proclamation — declaring slavery officially over.
Today, African Americans in Texas and across the country commemorate the end of slavery every June 19th, or “Juneteenth.” The holiday is the oldest known observation of its kind.
Although Granger’s declaration was decidedly belated — President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation nearly two-and-a-half years prior — his decree was celebrated joyfully by Texas freedmen.
At the time, Texas was home to 250,000 slaves. After Granger’s declaration, it took several months for the news to be passed among individual plantation owners and eventually to reach slaves in other parts of the state. Many of the celebrations that ensued are documented in The Slave Narratives of Texas.
According to the Texas State Historical Association, Granger advised freedmen to stay on the plantations where they had been working and sign labor agreements with the plantation owners, rather than moving to towns without guaranteed jobs.
He counseled them to remain working on plantations while they awaited aid from the Freedmen’s Bureau, which did not yet have a Texas branch.
Gen. Granger continued to spread this message throughout Texas for the following six weeks, at which point he was relieved of his position and replaced by Gen. Horatio G. Wright.
At first, Juneteenth celebrations were used primarily to educate freed African Americans about their voting rights. This eventually evolved into more of a true “celebration,” with parties and thanksgiving ceremonies hosted throughout the state.
In 1979, Texas state representative Al Edwards from Houston succeeded in passing legislation establishing Juneteenth as an official state holiday.
Today, Juneteenth is celebrated with concerts, picnics, baseball games, pageants, and parades. Many families organize family reunions around the date. Although it’s a time for celebrating and entertainment, the original themes of education and independence remain a central purpose of Juneteenth.
Prayer services are held, hymns are sung, and guest speakers and elderly African Americans are invited to discuss the history of Juneteenth and the legacy of African Americans in Texas.
But Texans are not the only individuals who celebrate Juneteenth and the milestones it represents. Celebrations are hosted across the country, and 12 other states have declared it an official holiday.
Juneteenth is a day for each of us to pay tribute to the men and women who were freed from slavery, and to those who fought to uphold our nation’s commitment to the principles of justice and liberty that are outlined in the Declaration of Independence.