Anthropology

A Brief History of Juneteenth Day

*This is a written transcript of my podcast episode on June 19th. If you would prefer to listen to the full episode you can find it here:

 We are moving through what feels like a new racial revolution, one where much of the world is muting themselves to amplify voices of colour, Indigenous Peoples and vulnerable communities. I think it’s important to not just to amplify the voices of today, but to echo the voices of our ancestors who worked tirelessly, endured unspeakable traumas and sacrificed their lives to achieve freedom and equality. Now more than ever, it’s time to look back on history, to learn from our mistakes, to right wrongs, to have thoughtful and respectful dialogues with our children and eachother, and to create a solid framework that allows each individual to step out into their community and feel freedom to go about their lives safely, and peacefully. Today is a time for reconciliation and self-education. So today, I will be giving you a brief history of what I believe to be the second most important day in American history, a day that never should have had to become a marked occasion, and one that was both long overdue, and incomplete.

Now, let’s talk about Juneteenth Day.

General Orders – No. 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 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

These were the official orders read out by Major General Gordon Granger. Granger, along with more than 1800 federal troops arrived in Galveston Texas to take control of the state, and free the more than 250,000 enslaved individuals living in the state of Texas. But before we go and hail Granger a hero, listen to those fateful words. “remain quietly at their present homes” “ they will not be allowed to collect at military posts, and they will be not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” Meaning, continue to work for your ‘Masters’, their crimes against you and your families mean nothing, continue to work in substandard working conditions, continue endure further abuse, at least you’re getting paid for it, and don’t complain to us because niether the state of the nation are willing to take care of you, even though you were born into slavery.  While June 19, 1865 was a day met with jubilation for many and was representative of the beginning to the end of slavery, it was an order that was two years overdue, and in the years thereafter, millions of freedmen and freedwomen continued to endure atrocities for another century and a half, atrocities that still haunt generations today, in a nation that is at war with systemic racism.

The Emancipation Proclamation

It’s impossible to fully understand the significance of June 19, 1865, without discussing the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth was not the official end of slavery in the United States, or in Texas for that matter. The enslaved of Texas were already free. Technically. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. This proclamation changed the legal status of more 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in the Confederate states. Just a refresher, the Confederation included South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. Now, what the proclamation didn’t do, was free those who remained enslaved in the border states and those not loyal to the Union. I realize that this opinion may be controversial, but I’ve never believed Lincoln’s intentions behind the Emancipation Proclamation to be altruistic. He once responded a scathing editorial in the New York Tribune saying “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” The Emancipation Proclamation while it was a decree that was set to free millions of enslaved, it was also an integral part of his war plans, and one that could solve a number of immediate concerns. In the midst of Civil War, Lincoln was worried about the possibility of European nations legitimizing the confederacy, which would have a catastrophic on the Union. Lincoln also had to address a serious lack of necessary man-power needed to bolster his Union cause. Lincoln realized that by incentivizing southern slaves and convincing them to come north to join the Union army, it would have a severe impact on powerful plantation owners in the South. 186,000 black Civil War soldiers would join the Union Army by the time the war ended in 1865 and some 38,000 lost their lives.

The Emancipation Proclamation was also a way to ensure European nations who supported abolition like England and France, did not insert themselves in matters of the Union. Even though both of these nations benefited heavily from the cotton industry, an industry that would not have existed without enslaved labour, to support the confederacy would be a hypocrisy. In the end, however you feel about Abraham Lincoln, as a man and a politician, his actions did lead to the beginning of the end of slavery in the United States.

Juneteenth Day
Slave Cabins, Oak Alley Plantation

So Why Was Juneteenth Necessary

If Lincoln had already issued his Emancipation Proclamation, what was the significance of Major Granger’s Orders that fateful day. If Lincoln had already freed the enslaved of the confederate states, which included Texas, why were African Americans still enslaved? Well, when slavery was abolished in the other states, in several of the lower southern territories, the notion of emancipation was met with resistance from plantation owners. They weren’t about to lose their livelihood just so their workforce could go free. So there was a migration of sorts, Plantation owners ran from approaching Union soldiers in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, taking with them more than 100,000 enslaved African Americans. They set up shop and began working plantations in Texas where they knew news of emancipation would reach their enslaved workforce at a much slower, more manageable pace.  And those owners who held fast in those periphery states successfully negotiated with or bribed Union Troops to allow them to keep their labourers until the end of the harvest. Major Granger’s orders were meant to enforce Lincoln’s Proclamation, and weaken the Confederate resistance.

But Was this the road to freedom?

“We all walked down the road singing and shouting to beat the band,” Molly Harrell, a freedwoman shared her jubilation in a book entitled “The Slave Narratives of Texas.” Another storyteller, Lou Smith said, “I ran off and hid in the plum orchard and said over ‘n’ over, ‘I’se free, I’se free; I aint never going back to Miss Jo.” After Major Granger read out those orders in Galveston, Thousands of enslaved African Americans across Texas took leave from their owners, and set off not just to start new lives, but to find stolen, sold and traded loved ones. Mothers went in search of stolen babies, children in search of kidnapped parents and siblings, husbands and wives who had married in secret but were torn apart by the agenda’s of plantation owners, the newly freed of Texas joined the more than 3.5 million broken, battered souls who courageously set forth to break free from their chains and forge new paths. But that initial jubilation fell to a hush as they quickly realized, they weren’t free at all. As Frederick Douglass, suffragist, abolitionist and social reformer once said, “without roofs to cover them, or bread to eat, or land to cultivate,” his people would never be free. And just when the government seemed to be taking steps towards the development in the form of social services, under the Bureau of Refugees, Freedman, and Abandoned Lands in Texas, trouble brewed, and an all-white anti-abolitionist group began to materialize with a strange moniker: They called themselves the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK and their army of sympathizers made it their business to descend on gatherings of Freedmen and women, interpreting such gatherings as acts of aggression and giving themselves permission to commit the most heinous crimes. Texas was meant to be rebuilt, under a piece of legislation called the Reconstruction Act. The Military Commander who was charged with enforcing and overseeing the Reconstruction Act in Texas once wrote to his superiors about crime against Blacks stating, “In some counties, the civil officers are all, or a portion of them, members of the Klan. The murder of Negroes is so common as to render it impossible to keep an accurate account of them.” Some of the offences committed by these freedmen and women included not removing their hat when passing a white man, or not allowing themselves to be whipped. Didn’t hand over his money quick enough. These are all written accounts made by Whites, documented by several historians over a century. This wasn’t freedom. This was just another kind of enslavement.

Juneteenth Day
Juneteenth Day Celebrations

Still So Much Work To Be Done

Slavery wasn’t officially abolished (and I use that term loosely) in the United States until the 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865. The amendment read as follows: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The status of post-war and post-emancipation Southern Blacks remained an inconvenience to majority white constituents. White Southerners re-established civil authority in the former Confederate states in 1865 and 1866, and enacted a series of laws known as the “Black Codes” and the Jim Crow laws. These were a series of rules enforced to restrict African American rights to ownership of property, legalized marriage, they were given limited access to courts for litigation, and they were not permitted to testify against whites, serve on juries, vote, or start a job without previous permission from their employer, you’re beginning to get the picture. This was so-called freedom in the post Juneteeth era. And while 1866 sounds like a long time ago, let’s not forget that survivors of segregation are still alive today. It was only in 1955 that Ms. Rosa Parks went against the city of Montgomery’s racial ordinance, and refused to give up her seat to a White Man. It was only in 1959 that the National Guard was called in to protect 9 African American students who were attending Little Rock High School in Arkansas. It was only in 1965 that the Voting Rights Act was passed, an act that sought to overcome toe legal barriers that existed at the local and state level that prevented African American citizens from exercising the right to vote, something that was supposedly given to them by the 15th Amendment. Fast forward to today, the first African American president was only voted into power in 2008, after a 219 year history of all white presidents.

Juneteenth Day
United in the Pursuit of Freedom

The Wrap Up

Despite being the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States, Juneteenth Day is not a national holiday, although as a Senator, Barack Obama co-sponsored legislation to make it so. He again attempted to pass it as president and was met with resistance. Nonetheless, today, Juneteenth Day is still widely celebrated across the nation (and around the world), and is not just celebrated by African Americans. Allies to the African American community have lent their support, and joined in on the festivities and traditions. Descendants of the enslaved have been known to make pilgrimages to Galveston to honour their ancestors on this day, and it has long been tradition to wear your very best to mark the occasion. During the era of enslavement, African Americans were forbidden to wear fine clothing, and so, in the early days of Juneteenth Day celebrations, former slaves would throw their plantation garments into nearby rivers and instead, wear all the finery that was only reserved for plantation owners. Juneteenth Day celebrations have waxed and waned over the last century and a half, interrupted by the Depression, oppressive and racist laws and extremist white nationalist groups. It gained momentum during the 1960’s and 1970’s Civil Rights era, and hit a fever pitch when Texas formally named it an official state holiday, thanks to the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator. It’s my hope that Juneteenth day becomes a national holiday, and that celebrations and allies to the community continue to grow with every year.

If you want to learn more about Juneteenth Day, juneteenthday.com, founded by Cliff Robinson, is a fantastic place to start. The website is the premier online site for Juneteenth related information, activities and supplies, and is dedicated to those individuals and organizations that have worked tirelessly to continue the recognition and tradition of Juneteenth. And if you are looking for resources on anti-racism, blacklivesmatter.com or blacklivesmatter.ca are sites chock full of resources, and books like “We are not yet equal, Understanding Our Racial Divide” by Carol Anderson and Tonya Bolden, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy Roberts and How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi are all bodies of work that will help you start your journey towards understanding and dissolving racial biases.

Now I realize this is a horrendously watered down, severely anemic timeline of what has happened to the African American community since 1865. And it is no way complete. It’s just a very brief history, a small soundbite of the true significance of Juneteenth Day. And trust me when I say, I’ve spent hours and hours getting lost in historical archives. Reading first and second hand accounts of enslaved men and women. Reading about the sung and unsung heroes and heroines of the African American community, before and after enslavement. The revolution that is going on today has become a catalyst for me to further my own education on African American history, and I’ve only just barely scratched the surface. This history is also mine. I told you I was bi-ethnic, what I didn’t mention was that I’m half African American. This is part of my story.

If you would prefer the audio version of this post on Juneteenth Day, please subscribe to Across Storied Lands on your favourite podcast platform.

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Jordana is a Canadian based travel author, travel manager, and anthropology graduate with a passion for all things cultural.

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