More than two years after President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation (and had already been killed), almost five months since Congress passed the 13th Amendment, and more than two months after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate Army at the Appomattox Court House, all slaves were ordered free in Texas on June 19, 1865.
This had to be done, UC Davis historians Justin Leroy and Gregory Downs explained, because Confederate Texans were still holding slaves, dreaming of sustaining the rebel cause there. “In a state where whites outnumbered slaves more than 2-to-1,” wrote Downs, professor of history, in an article, “planters and ranchers did everything in their power to sustain slavery wherever they could.”
“Juneteenth is an important moment in the history of emancipation because it reveals the way that emancipation did not happen all at once or with the stroke of a pen but in a brutal, decades-long fight against slave owners who did not surrender or retreat,” said Downs.
The fact that it took so long for this news to reach the western edge of the Confederacy is a reminder that the Emancipation Proclamation did not instantly end slavery throughout the South. It affected only states in open rebellion, excluding the slave states that remained loyal to the Union — Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, Leroy explained.
Ultimately, it took the force of the Union Army led by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger on that June 19th to end slavery after a use of force, exerting its war powers, and the occupation of Galveston Bay.
The struggles continue, Downs and Leroy agree.
Juneteenth gains new meaning
The year after the military action, freedpeople in Texas organized celebrations commemorating Granger’s news, said Leroy. Over time, Juneteenth spread to other Southern states, and became an important symbolic date in the decades following the Civil War.
With the rise of white supremacist violence and the construction of Jim Crow segregation, Juneteenth celebrations waned by the turn of the 20th century, Leroy explained. However, the black freedom struggles of the 1950s and ’60s produced a renewed interest in Juneteenth.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, a march on Washington, D.C., for economic justice, fell on June 19, 1968, he added.
As a direct result of the Poor People’s Campaign, states outside the South, such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, began to celebrate Juneteenth. In 1980, Texas made Juneteenth a state holiday, and the ongoing uprisings against racial violence have spurred a discussion about making Juneteenth an officially recognized national holiday.
Aspects loom large
“The fact that a celebration commemorating emancipation resonated so strongly in the struggles for civil rights and against police violence shows us how the legacies of slavery loom large over black political organizing even a century and a half after its formal abolition,” Leroy said.
Yet he urged caution about adopting the narrative of Juneteenth.
“In many ways it is misrepresentative of how enslaved people experienced the fight for freedom during the Civil War. The story of Juneteenth presents a benevolent Union officer bringing news of emancipation to unaware slaves who had continued to toil on plantations during the long years of the war. In reality, enslaved people were active agents in transforming the Civil War from a war for reunification into a war against slavery. ...
“In other words, enslaved people forced the Union to confront slavery as the central issue of the war and were participants in creating the conditions for their own emancipation — an important dynamic of the Civil War that the story of Juneteenth leaves out.”
Downs agreed. “In fact,” he added, “slavery did not end in Kentucky and Delaware until December 1865 when enough states ratified the 13th Amendment. Thus the day of June 19, 1865, was an important day in the end of slavery, but in a spectrum of other important days, some of which came months later.”
Other commemorations of emancipation include:
- Watch Night in the coastal Carolinas
- Eighth of August in Tennessee
- Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina
- July Fourth in Vicksburg, Mississippi
An important aspect of Juneteenth, Downs added, “is the way that it became an important site for African Americans to celebrate not just the end of slavery but the construction and reconstruction of families, churches, businesses, voluntary associations and other things they associated with freedom, and then to defend those gains and the people who fought for them.”