The hour was late when Frederick Douglass rose to speak to more than fifty African-American leaders who had gathered in Washington, DC, to honor him and celebrate emancipation. The elaborate banquet, as recounted in David W. Blight’s recent biography; Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, included notable figures from a broad spectrum of black life in the post-Civil War era. Men such as Medal of Honor winner Christian A. Fleetwood, former congressman Robert Smalls of South Carolina, Howard University’s James M. Gregory, newspapermen like Benjamin T. Tanner and T. Thomas Fortune were among the distinguished guests. “Never before in the history of the American negro has there ever been such an assemblage of leading colored men,” the African-American owned and operated Washington Bee reported.
Douglass was the last speaker of the evening. He began with self-deprecating humor, quickly warmed to the task before him, and moved from gratitude for personal tributes to the significance of emancipation. “Until this day,” Douglass said, “slavery, … like a vulture, was gnawing at the heart of the republic…. Until this day, the colored people of the United States lived in the shadow of death…. Until this day it was doubtful whether liberty or union would triumph, or slavery and barbarism.” In the words of David Blight, “Douglass sang on” until the early morning hours of the following day, January 2, 1883.
It was twenty years since President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. But freedom had not arrived simultaneously for all enslaved persons. The news of emancipation spread unevenly across the South. The proclamation was unenforceable in areas of the South not under Union control because of continuing fighting. In Confederate-held areas, few slave-owners were willing to relinquish their hold on slavery. Some moved to Texas with their enslaved persons, while others chose to sell their enslaved persons rather than see them emancipated. Each slave state, perhaps even each newly freed person, experienced their individual “Until this day” moment of freedom at different times.
The news of emancipation arrived especially late in Texas. Not until General Gordon Granger and the United States Army arrived in Galveston Bay on June 18, 1865, more than two and a half years after Lincoln’s Proclamation, did Texans learn the war and slavery had ended. General Granger read his General Order Number 3 the next day, June 19th, from the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa. It began;
“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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
Understandably, the former slaves erupted into spontaneous celebrations of the long prayed-for news. One son of a former slave said, “My daddy told me that they whooped and hollered and bored holes in trees with augers and stopped it up with gunpowder and light and that would be their blast for the celebration.” Though initially only celebrated in Texas, over forty states now commemorate Juneteenth as marking the end of slavery in the United States.
Yet, as historian Gregory P. Downs argues, “The idea that any such proclamation (Granger’s General Order #3) would still need to be issued in June 1865 … forces us to rethink how and when slavery and the Civil War ended.” Reconsideration of the end of the Civil War and slavery, Downs continues, “helps us recognize Juneteenth as not just a bookend to the Civil War but as a celebration and commemoration of the epic struggles of emancipation and Reconstruction.”
It is unlikely, as some think, that General Granger’s proclamation was the first news that slaves in Texas heard about emancipation. One former enslaved person, Felix Haywood, recalled, “We knowed what was goin on all the time. We all felt like heroes and nobody had made us that way but ourselves.” Just as the Underground Railroad operated clandestinely transporting slaves to freedom, so did a kind of underground communications system inform enslaved persons of the war’s progress. So, what was the significance of General Granger’s announcement?
Historian Gregory Downs argues that it was not the Juneteenth proclamation that ended slavery in Texas but the United States Army’s “forcing rebels to obey the law.” Indeed, the Army was needed. As late as October of 1865, enslaved persons were being bought and sold in Texas. Planters and ranchers in Texas worked to impose conditions as similar to those under slavery as possible. As Downs says: “The real on-the-ground work of ending slavery and defending the rudiments of liberty was done by the freed people in collaboration with and often backed by the force of the US Army.” Freedmen and women endured a long struggle against vigilantes, unfair labor contracts, and restrictions on suffrage.
African-Americans in Texas began celebrating Juneteenth in 1866 and continued for many years following the war. Blocked by segregationists from using public parks, they gathered in open fields and churchyards to sing hymns, hear speeches, and pray that next year the promise of freedom would become a reality. By 1870, they had raised $100,000 to buy land for a park in Houston, now known as Emancipation Park, which became the home of annual celebrations. As Jim Crow took root in the South, black Texans moving north during the Great Migration took with them the story of Juneteenth. Some Northern cities saw their first celebrations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Several dates could work to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States. One possibility is April 16, the date in 1862 that slavery ended in Washington, DC. Other possible dates are September 22, the day Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation; January 1, the date the Final Proclamation was signed; or April 9, the date of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. But Juneteenth appears poised to win recognition as the date to honor this milestone in American history. In 1980, Texas, the last state officially notified of the abolishment of slavery, became the first state to designate Juneteenth as a state holiday. More than forty states have followed suit.
Juneteenth reminds us of the delayed process of emancipation; it also reminds us of ongoing challenges. Recent events–social unrest in the United States over continuing racial disparities in policing and incarceration rates, racial inequities in health care highlighted by the Covid 19 pandemic –remind us of the same thing. At Teaching American History, we believe the story of America is the story of the struggle to make the nation’s commitment to freedom and equality a reality for all its citizens.