Once the Federal Government returned voting rights to former Confederate rebels in the South, Reconstruction came to an abrupt end as Democrats regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives as well as state governments. (see ) Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, and other segregation legislation once again suppressed the black community. Juneteenth celebrations were also effected as blacks were no longer permitted in some public areas. Therefore, Texans collected funds to purchase land in places like Houston for Emancipation Park and in Mexia, Texas, for Booker T. Washington Park, where blacks could freely assemble. (see )
Despite the setbacks, blacks continued to make extraordinary advances until the first Southern Democrat was elected president since Reconstruction. Racism, suppression, and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) were not only revived in the South, it flooded into the North as well with the release of The Birth Of A Nation. (see ) Democrat President Woodrow Wilson’s endorsement of the movie, which uses quotes from his book, A History Of The American People, gave it validity to Americans across the country, not just in the South. The black community once again was forced to contend with the terrorism practiced by the KKK. (see ) Yet this time, their radical tyranny also infested whites in the North as they believed the movie’s lies and fabrications regarding Reconstruction and the behavior of the freedmen.
Though highly restricted, Juneteenth remained primarily a local Texas holiday until the Great Depression prompted a massive migration of black Texans looking for work in cities all across the country. Bringing their tradition with them, Juneteenth celebrations soon formed in cities from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles. The holiday experienced further spread following Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination as Civil Rights Leaders encouraged local celebrations throughout the country. (see )
Liberty, our family is deeply patriotic and looks forward each year to observing Independence Day on the 4th of July. However, to those of African-American descent, it is a very bittersweet day. While most love their country, their ancestors were still denied the freedom we gained on that day. That is why Juneteenth is so meaningful and important to them. However, Frederick Douglass preferred January 1, the day the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, as their day of celebration. Nevertheless, as the day black Texans were told of their liberation with enforcement from the military, June 19 sparked the holiday celebration. Today, almost all states have an observation of Juneteenth with Texas considering it a state holiday.
I first heard of Juneteenth when we moved to Houston, Texas, in the 1990’s. However, through my research for these letters and my study of history, I have gained a respect for the African American struggle. Juneteenth is a day to look forward to the opportunities freedom gives to an individual. What has been so disappointing and frustrating over the past 9 years has been the focus of some African Americans to continue dwelling on slavery instead of celebrating and embracing their independence. They keep looking back and obsessing over what was instead of seizing the future and aspiring to what could be. That alone keeps many of them in bondage, suppressing their ability to utilize having those chains broken and depending on a welfare state.
May we all take this opportunity to truly acknowledge and celebrate the freedom, which we, as Americans, enjoy as many across this world do not have it. As John Adams said in 1775, “Liberty once lost is lost forever.” Enjoy, but more importantly respect, your freedom, America, because it will be taken from us if we do not defend it.
That’s my 2 cents.
June 19, 2018
Children’s laughter and the crack of a baseball bat permeate the air as picnickers fill their bellies with BBQ and Big Red soda. Flags are raised as cheers of independence remind people the day their freedom was declared. Yet, this is not the 4th of July, and the celebration is not about the . However, it is just as important.
On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger walked onto the balcony of Ashton Villa on Galveston Island, Texas, to deliver General Order No. 3 to the people. He looked out among the faces in the crowd and cleared his throat. With a loud voice, he proclaimed:
“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.”
During the height of the Civil War, Republican President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. If the Confederacy did not end their rebellion, the order would go into effect on January 1, 1863, freeing their slaves. Except, it only applied to those states in the South. Slave states loyal to the Union, which included Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and the counties of what would become West Virginia, were not affected. In addition, three other areas occupied by the Union, Tennessee, southern Louisiana, and Southeast Virginia, were also excluded.
Even after January 1, all but one tenth of one percent of the nearly 4 million slaves in the South remained on the plantation as their owners defied the declaration. Most slaves didn’t even know about the proclamation as their owners, who made sure to keep their slaves illiterate, would only tell them how those Northerners were devils, with horns and tails. (see ) Encouraged by Frederick Douglass, Soujourner Truth, Robert Smalls, an escaped slave, and future Civil War Veteran and U.S. Representative, and Rev. Hiram Rhodes Revels, the future first black U.S. Senator, free blacks and former slaves saw an opportunity to earn citizenship. (see , , , and ) Two of Douglass' sons and Truth's grandson all joined the first official black unit, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, eager to fight for the Union in efforts to eradicate slavery everywhere and prove their rightful place in America. (see )
Following the war, Republicans ensured the freedman’s God-given right of citizenship. As no Democrat Congressmen in the House or Senate would vote for it, Republicans alone overturned the Dred Scott Decision with the passage and ratification of the in 1868. (see and )
As the war progressed, Southern plantation owners started preparing for possible defeat. Attempting to retain their slaves, owners drove them west to Texas, which the war primarily left untouched. Tens of thousands of slaves were brought to Texas where rebels hoped to maintain a stand against Lincoln and the Union Army.
On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. (see ) Even with the official end of the war a month later on May 9, Democrat Governor Pendleton Murrah encouraged the troops under Confederate Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith to continue on. However, following the news that Union forces were on their way, Murrah, along with other Confederate leaders, fled to Mexico.
Without any real leadership, for two weeks Texas was in virtual chaos. Over $17,000 in gold was looted from the state treasury while slave owners, who outnumbered slaves, tried to preserve slavery. Therefore, with Texas in complete disarray, Smith had no choice but to surrender the state, which he did on June 2.
By the time Granger presented the two and a half year old proclamation by the now assassinated Executive of the United States a month after the end of the war on Galveston Island, Congress had already passed the permanently abolishing slavery. However, it would not be ratified until December 6, 1865. Despite all this, Granger and his nearly 2,000 soldiers were forced to take control of the situation, acting under wartime powers granted them while they fought the resistance. Ranchers and plantation owners often chose to ignore the order, especially through the harvest, until government agents personally visited and informed the slaves of their freedom.
Granger and the army attempted to thwart the slavery movement by going after the legal system, which was being used deviously to help slave owners. The Army assumed control of relevant court cases while arresting judges and sheriffs who defied their responsibilities to the people and the law. In several instances, they even suspended habeas corpus.
Thousands of soldiers descended on Texas as the new provisional governor, Andrew Jackson Hamilton, tried to pull Texas back together. Appointed by Democrat President Andrew Johnson, the former Democrat began his term as a member of the Unionist Party but left as a Radical Republican. (see ) He rejected Johnson’s obstruction of Reconstruction, often criticizing Johnson while arguing for black suffrage. (see ) Hamilton and Granger succeeded in helping the freedmen secure their independence, virtually eliminating slavery in Texas by the end of 1863. Regardless, over the next few years, nearly 400 freedmen were killed in Texas as pockets of resisters hoped to keep the black population scared into remaining in chains. During the same time, ten whites were killed by black Texans.
Even though it took time for Hamilton and Granger to enforce emancipation, the freedmen saw June 19 as their Independence Day. Just as Patriots still needed to fight for years following July 4, 1776, the former slaves had a long battle ahead of them. (see ) However, June 19 marked for Texans the day the government put their muscle where their mouth was and enforced freedom for the black man.
Therefore, in 1866, celebrations occurred in Texas to mark the anniversary of Granger reading his order. A combination of “June” and “Nineteenth”, Juneteenth soon became a local holiday for black Texans. Also known as Juneteenth Independence Day and Freedom Day, former slaves congregated in parks and other public gathering places to celebrate freedom. Traditional activities mirror those of America’s Independence Day, including the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation along with writings of prominent African-American writers, choruses of patriotic songs as well as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” concerts by neighborhood bands, cookouts, rodeos and block parties.