Juneteenth: 155 years of Texas history

Staff Writer
Runnels County Register
Emancipation Day celebration - June 19th, 1900.

The following story was compiled from various references, including: Books, magazine articles, Wikipedia as well as historical documents. The author of the books and/or articles are noted in each instance, as is the name of the publication.

Many people have a cursory knowledge about Juneteenth but few outside of the Black community know it’s deep and interesting history, particularly in Texas. Its history is rich and forms part of the historical fabric of Texas and our nation.

According to an article, "It Happened: June 19" in the Milwaukee Star, vol. 14, no. 42. June 27, 1974, “Juneteenth, known as Celebration Day, Freedom Day and Jubilee Day, is celebrated on June 19th.”

The news of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865 reached Texas later in the month. The Army of the Trans-Mississippi did not surrender until June 2, 1865. On June 18, 1865 Union General Gordon Granger arrived at Galveston Island with 2,000 federal troops to occupy Texas on behalf of the federal government.

Henry Gates, Jr wrote in, “What is Juneteenth” for The Root, “Although President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1st, 1863, it wasn’t read to enslaved African-Americans in Texas until June 19th, 1863, when Gordon Granger read it to them at Galveston.”

The Proclamation read:

“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.

Gates’ article explained the delay in Texas slaves learning of their freedom, “Although the Emancipation Proclamation had formally freed them almost two and a half years earlier, and the American Civil War had largely ended with the defeat of the Confederate States in April, Texas was the most remote of the slave states, with a low presence of Union troops, so enforcement of the proclamation had been slow and inconsistent.”

According to an article written by Gilbert Cruz for Time Magazine in the June 18, 2008 issue, “A Brief History of Juneteenth,” Texas was more isolated geographically and was not a battleground during the Civil War, and thus the people held there as slaves were generally not affected by the Emancipation Proclamation.

In his article for The Root, Gates, Jr., wrote of how so many slaves came to be in Texas during the Civil War, “Planters and other slaveholders had migrated into Texas from eastern states to escape the fighting, and many brought enslaved people with them, increasing by the thousands the enslaved population in the state at the end of the Civil War. Although most enslaved people lived in rural areas, more than 1,000 resided in both Galveston and Houston by 1860, with several hundred in other large towns. By 1865, there were an estimated 250,000 enslaved people in Texas.”

Lynda T. Wynn wrote, in Freedom Facts and Firsts: 400 Years of the African American Civil Rights Experience, “Although this event is popularly thought of as ‘the end of slavery’, the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to those enslaved in Union-held territory, who would not be freed until the proclamation of the Thirteenth Amendment several months later, on December 18, 1865.”

According to Freedomcenter.org, the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to states that had seceded from the Union, which left enslavement intact in the Border States of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. The Emancipation Proclamation also exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already been placed under the control of the Union Army.”

There were three zones under Union occupation: the state of Tennessee, lower Louisiana, and eastern Virginia.

There were great celebrations by the formerly enslaved people in Galveston. In 1864 the former slaves celebrated they had christened as “Jubilee Day,” June 19th.

An article in the Fort Worth Star Telegram about the celebrations said, “Early celebrations were used as political rallies where they’d give voting instructions to the former slaves.”

According to Charles R. Wilson in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 4: Myth, Manners, and Memory, “Early independence celebrations often occurred on January 1 or 4.”

Gates said that due to the fact that some cities still had segregation, African Americans were barred from certain places, such as public parks. To work around this problem, the African Americans purchased land on which to hold their Jubilee Day celebrations.” Many of those places are still around and have been given historical landmark protection. These places include Emancipation Park in Houston, Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia and Emancipation Park in Austin.

Wynn points out that in Austin, in 1867, the Freedmen’s Bureau held their first official Jubilee Day celebration.

According to Wynn, printers began marking the day on their calendars in 1872.

The Freedmen's Bureau Bill, which established the Freedmen's Bureau on March 3, 1865, was initiated by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and was intended to last for one year after the end of the Civil War.

The Freedmen’s bureau was a U.S. government agency from 1865 to 1872, to direct "provisions, clothing, and fuel ... for the immediate and temporary shelter and supply of destitute and suffering refugees and freedmen and their wives and children."

The Freedmen’s Bureau was a critically important government bureau during the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War. The bureau assisted freedmen in the South and was made a part of the United States Department of War, as it was the only agency with an existing organization that could be assigned to the South. Headed by Union Army General Oliver O. Howard, the Bureau started operations in 1865.

Sowandé Mustakeem wrote in, "Juneteenth”, Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World that, “In 1872, black leaders raised $1,000 for the purchase of 10 acres of land in Austin on which to celebrate Juneteenth.

That location became known as Emancipation Park. “

Wynn writes that early Jubilee Day celebrations at Booker T. Washington Park in Limestone County are said to have drawn as many as 30,000 African Americans.

Shennette Garrett-Scott wrote in, "When Peace Come": Teaching the Significance of Juneteenth," for the Black History Bulletin, that it wasn’t until the 1890s that Jubilee Day became known as Juneteenth.

Luther Adams, on November 29, 2010, wrote in Way Up North in Louisville: African American Migration in the Urban South, 1930–1970, “The early 20th century saw a decline in Juneteenth celebrations. The main reason attributed to the decline was laws and amendments that disenfranchised black people, excluding them from the political process at the time.”

Gladys L. Knight writes that the decline in celebration was in part because "upwardly mobile blacks [...] were ashamed of their slave past and aspired to assimilate into mainstream culture. Younger generations of blacks, becoming further removed from slavery were occupied with school [...] and other pursuits. Others who migrated to the Northern United States couldn't take time off or simply dropped the celebration.”

According to Adams, The Great Depression also negatively affected the numbers of people celebrating Juneteenth in rural areas as many moved to cities up north seeking employment.

William H. Wiggins, Jr., wrote in Juneteenth: A Red Spot Day on the Texas Calendar, that The Texas State Fair used the holiday to help its revival after The Great Depression. Wiggins points out that in 1936 it’s estimated that 150,000 – 200,000 people celebrated Juneteenth at the Texas State Fair. In 1938, Texas governor J. V. Allred issued a proclamation stating, in part, that the holiday would be observed June 19 as “The official day for the celebration of Emancipation from slavery”;

“Whereas, June 19, 1938, this year falls on Sunday; NOW, THEREFORE, I, JAMES V. ALLRED, Governor of the State of Texas, do set aside and proclaim the day of June 20, 1938, as the date for observance of EMANCIPATION DAY in Texas.”

Anne Dingus, wrote in Once a Texas-only holiday marking the end of slavery, Juneteenth is now celebrated nationwide with high spirits and hot barbecue, “In the late 1970s the Texas Legislature declared Juneteenth a "holiday of significance [...] particularly to the blacks of Texas". It was the first state to establish Juneteenth as a state holiday under legislation introduced by freshman Democratic state representative Al Edwards.

Wynn points out that the law passed through the Texas Legislature in 1979 and was officially made a state holiday on January 1, 1980.

Juneteenth is a "partial staffing" holiday in Texas; government offices do not close but agencies may operate with reduced staff, and employees may either celebrate this holiday or substitute it with one of four "optional holidays" recognized by Texas. In the late 1980s there were major celebrations of Juneteenth in California, Wisconsin, Illinois, Georgia, and Washington, D.C.

In 1996 the first legislation to recognize "Juneteenth Independence Day" was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, H.J. Res. 195, sponsored by Barbara-Rose Collins (D-MI).

In 1997 Congress recognized the day through Senate Joint Resolution 11 and House Joint Resolution 56.

In 2013 the U.S. Senate passed Senate Resolution 175, acknowledging Lula Briggs Galloway (late president of the National Association of Juneteenth Lineage) who "successfully worked to bring national recognition to Juneteenth Independence Day", and the continued leadership of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.

In 2018 Apple added Juneteenth to its calendars in iOS under official US holidays.

Activists are pushing Congress to recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday. Organizations such as the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation are seeking a Congressional designation of Juneteenth as a national day of observance.

Map of counties covered (red) and not covered (blue) by the Emancipation Proclamation.