Most people assume that slavery ended with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, an assumption that is an enduring falsehood. It is sufficient to note that freedom did not come in a singular moment with the swift penning of a well-intentioned dictate. Freedom, instead, was a process, one fueled initially by self-emancipatory efforts. Of the nearly four million African Americans enslaved by the eve of the Civil War in 1861, more than 500,000 would risk their lives and abscond from their places of enslavement to find freedom anywhere—from the treacherous marshlands of the Mississippi River Delta to the bustling urban centers of Canadian territories, or the subjective security of Union strongholds.
They left on their own volition and altered the very aim of the federal government, an aim that shifted from one defined by the preservation of the union to one that privileged freedom over slavery. In April 1865, the surrender of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee and his army at Virginia’s Appomattox Courthouse, together with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment by the United States Senate, ushered in the official end of slavery—for most. Enslaved African Americans in Texas would find a more challenging path to freedom, one that would lead to the creation of a widely celebrated and frequently misunderstood holiday—Juneteenth.
During the winter of 1860, Texas delegates to the state convention approved an ordinance of secession by a vote of 166 to 8. By the end of March 1861, Texas had joined the Confederacy. Over the next several years, planters from surrounding southern states moved their slaves to Texas in an effort to keep them away from Union troops who could help to secure their freedom. As a result, the state’s enslaved population reached nearly one quarter of a million by the war’s end in 1865. Buffered from the geo-politics that typically kept enslaved people informed about regional and national developments, African Americans in Texas remained largely unaware that freedom had arrived.
When General Gordon Granger, accompanied by approximately 2,000 Union troops, arrived in Galveston, Texas on June 18, 1865, he was conceivably weary. The war had drawn on for four years and Texas remained unoccupied by Union forces, until Granger’s arrival. The day after he landed at the littoral city, in a tale some argue is given more to legend than reality (some say he actually stayed perched on his horse), Granger stood on the balcony of the Ashton Villa, a Victorian style home used as the local Confederate headquarters, and read the words that would level the racial hierarchy in the state of Texas. Despite his actual location, what remains undisputed are the words he read from General Order 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 help.
The federal decree presented by Granger demolished the world that white Texans had created. “An absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property,” as noted in Granger’s order, between white and black people seemed inconceivable to those invested in the value of their whiteness, a value inextricably tied to the debased status of African Americans. Shortly thereafter, the Texas Almanac printed a column on the state’s cotton crop that lamented the loss of a free labor force and revealed the racist sentiments that would challenge black freedom efforts. African Americans, the columnist insisted, should be “indebted” to slavery for their “advancement, originally, from a state of humanity the lowest and most degraded known to mankind, to one comparatively civilized.”
In the now pending absence of a stark divide between white and black, and the dismantling of a labor system that firmly subjugated blackness, efforts to restrict black freedom and halt black progress would increase exponentially for decades. Such efforts, however, would not prevent African Americans in Texas from establishing a life in freedom. Black sovereignty in varied forms—including migration out of Texas, as well as the establishment of businesses, schools, institutions of worship, and political power—would be the hallmarks of Reconstruction in Texas and the South at-large, a black hegemony that would endure despite mounting efforts to dismantle it.
In the midst of rapid changes immediately following the war, Juneteenth became a resounding and lasting symbol of black autonomy, resistance, and remembrance. While word of General Order No. 3 took several months to spread through the state and reach those who remained in bondage, June 19 (Juneteenth) remained the consensus date for celebration. For African Americans in Texas, June 19 marked, with unmistakable resolve, the beginning of a new life, one absent of a master slave dyad and instead fueled by an unshakable desire to create a world that bore all of the symbols of freedom. By 1866, celebrations across the state to commemorate that splendid day when freedom arrived included picnics, parades, and oratory. Over the next several decades, the merriments encompassed rodeos, fishing, baseball games, fairs, and other celebratory activities. By 1900, Juneteenth was informally known as Texas Emancipation Day and was widely considered the most celebrated holiday among African Americans across the state.
Juneteenth remained an unofficial festivity, however, until 1980 when Al Edwards, an African American state legislator, encouraged the passage of a bill that rendered Juneteenth an official state holiday. By that time, black Texans who migrated to the north, southwest and west coast had carried their culture, including the significance and celebration of Juneteenth, to the burgeoning black communities of cities such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Seattle where Juneteenth celebrations continue today.
Dr. Terry Anne Scott
Director of African-American Studies, Hood College