On January 1st, 1863 President Lincoln signed an executive order freeing all the slaves in those states that left the Union to form and join the Confederacy. Texas was the most western Confederate state and even though Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865 it was not until June 19, 1865 that a Union Army led by Gordon Grange entered Galveston, Texas with the formal announcement that the war was over and all enslaved people in Texas were now free. It is important to note that slavery was not formally abolished in all U.S. states until passage and ratification of the 13th Amendment.
African Americans began the tradition of celebrating their freedom in Texas with a day marked by prayer and religious services; speeches and educational events; food and dance. Many former slaves interpreted the moment of emancipation as evidence of God’s deliverance, while others took the news as the U.S. finally embracing its self-proclaimed values of freedom, democracy, and opportunity.
In 1980 Texas formally declared Juneteenth to be a state holiday. The day is also celebrated outside of the United States in those countries marking the cultural achievements of African Americans and their incalculable contribution to the development of the United States.
Despite the hard earned and victoriously momentous nature of the occasion, it is sad commentary on American history, society, and culture that it would take more than another full century, plus blood, sweat, and tears, to only begin to realize the emancipation of formally enslaved people and their descendants. Jim Crow laws, segregation, discrimination, and race-based terrorism committed by the KKK and other white supremist groups, deferred the dream of Juneteenth for more than 100 years.
The 1964-1965 Voting and Civil Rights Acts of the 2nd Reconstruction have been under siege in recent years and with significant results. We might consider remembering Juneteenth in future years as an opportunity for a nationwide conversation designed to promote in the words of Lincoln, a “…nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—-and government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (Gettysburg Address)
In the same way that Black people during the late 1800s held uncertainty and anxiety knowing that freedom from slavery did not mean equality, Black people now are forced to embrace, on an everyday basis, the hardships of dealing with a similar inconsistency. African Americans acquired their official citizenship through struggle, sacrifice, and perseverance, but are African Americans truly emancipated? Mass incarceration and disproportionate state-sanctioned violence against African Americans; consistent inequalities that are highly correlated to race, and ongoing resistance to promote racially just policies suggests that the question still must be addressed honestly in the spirit of the holiday.
Contributed by SUNY Distinguished Service Professor, Douglas Garnar & Professor Scott Corley, History, Philosophy, and Social Sciences Dept and SUNY Broome’s Civic Engagement Board