Thursday, June 19, 2008


Happy Juneteenth, ya'all.

For those of you who are white and/or live in states which do not celebrate it, this is an originally African-American celebration of the date in 1865 when the slaves in Galveston, Texas found out that as of January 1, 1963, they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. The holiday, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, was for a hundred years celebrated first in Galveston, then in Texas. It is now observed in 26 of the United States.

According to Wikipedia, "Legend has it while standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, Union General Gordon Granger (backed by 2000 federal troops) read the contents of “General Order No. 3”:

(Juneteenth, painting by G. Rose)

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.

(Juneteenth celebration in Austin, Texas on 19 June 1900)
"Former slaves in Galveston rejoiced in the streets with jubilant celebrations. Juneteenth celebrations began in Texas the following year. Across many parts of Texas, freed people pooled their funds to purchase land specifically for their communities’ increasingly large Juneteenth gatherings—including Houston’s Emancipation Park, Mexia’s Booker T. Washington Park, and Emancipation Park in Austin."

According to the Handbook of Texas:

'The day has been celebrated through formal thanksgiving ceremonies at which the hymn "Lift Every Voice" furnished the opening. In addition, public entertainment, picnics, and family reunions have often featured dramatic readings, pageants, parades, barbecues, and ball games. Blues festivals have also shaped the Juneteenth remembrance. In Limestone County, celebrants gather for a three-day reunion organized by the Nineteenth of June Organization. Some of the early emancipation festivities were relegated by city authorities to a town's outskirts; in time, however, black groups collected funds to purchase tracts of land for their celebrations, including Juneteenth.

'In the state capital, Juneteenth was first celebrated in 1867 under the direction of the Freedmen's Bureau and became part of the calendar of public events by 1872. Juneteenth in Limestone County has gathered "thousands" to be with families and friends. At one time 30,000 blacks gathered at Booker T. Washington Park, known more popularly as Comanche Crossing, for the event. One of the most important parts of the Limestone celebration is the recollection of family history, both under slavery and since. Another of the state's memorable celebrations of Juneteenth occurred in Brenham, where large, racially mixed crowds witness the annual promenade through town. In Beeville, black, white, and brown residents have also joined together to commemorate the day with barbecue, picnics, and other festivities.

'Juneteenth declined in popularity in the early 1960s, when the civil-rights movement, with its push for integration, diminished interest in the event. In the 1970s African Americans' renewed interest in celebrating their cultural heritage led to the revitalization of the holiday throughout the state. At the end of the decade Representative Al Edwards, an African-American Democrat from Houston, introduced a bill calling for Juneteenth to become a state holiday. The legislature passed the act in 1979, and Governor William P. Clements, Jr., signed it into law. The first state-sponsored Juneteenth celebration took place in 1980.'

I can only imagine the feelings of those hearing this news in 1865. states:

"Later attempts to explain this two and a half year delay in the receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years. Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another, is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another, is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All or none of them could be true. For whatever the reason, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory."

My personal guess, as the descendant of Texas slaveowners, that the second and perhaps the third of these explanations is the most likely.

"The reactions to this profound news ranged from pure shock to immediate jubilation. While many lingered to learn of this new employer to employee relationship, many left before these offers were completely off the lips of their former 'masters' - attesting to the varying conditions on the plantations and the realization of freedom. Even with nowhere to go, many felt that leaving the plantation would be their first grasp of freedom. North was a logical destination and for many it represented true freedom, while the desire to reach family members in neighboring states drove some into Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Settling into these new areas as free men and women brought on new realities and the challenges of establishing a heretofore non-existent status for black people in America.

"Recounting the memories of that great day in June of 1865 and its festivities would serve as motivation as well as a release from the growing pressures encountered in their new territory. The celebration of June 19th was coined "Juneteenth" and grew with more participation from descendants. The Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.

"A range of activities were provided to entertain the masses, many of which continue in tradition today. Rodeos, fishing, barbecuing and baseball are just a few of the typical Juneteenth activities you may witness today. Juneteenth almost always focused on education and self improvement. Thus often guest speakers are brought in and the elders are called upon to recount the events of the past. Prayer services were also a major part of these celebrations.

"Certain foods became popular and subsequently synonymous with Juneteenth celebrations such as strawberry soda-pop. More traditional and just as popular was the barbecuing, through which Juneteenth participants could share in the spirit and aromas that their ancestors - the newly emancipated African Americans, would have experienced during their ceremonies. Hence, the barbecue pit is often established as the center of attention at Juneteenth celebrations.

"Food was abundant because everyone prepared a special dish. Meats such as lamb, pork and beef which not available everyday were brought on this special occasion. A true Juneteenth celebrations left visitors well satisfied and with enough conversation to last until the next.

"Dress was also an important element in early Juneteenth customs and is often still taken seriously, particularly by the direct descendants who can make the connection to this tradition's roots. During slavery there were laws on the books in many areas that prohibited or limited the dressing of the enslaved. During the initial days of the emancipation celebrations, there are accounts of former slaves tossing their ragged garments into the creeks and rivers to adorn clothing taken from the plantations belonging to their former 'masters'."

(Juneteenth, Manhattan, Kansas, 1997, photo © Kerry Stuart Coppin)

Since I prefer to read first-hand accounts rather than the often self-serving synopses of academics and outsiders reporting on a culture or event, I went to the Library of Congress's online source for Slave Narratives gathered by the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938. These are organized by the names of former slaves, or by state for the photographs alone. This a wealth of accumulated life stories which tell both the grim reality of life under slavery and, often, a "dey wuz good to us" version that is clearly meant as appeasement to the white interviewer. Both are equally revealing.

I selected one story with an accompanying photo, the interview with Issabella Boyd, who was brought from Richmond, Virginia to Beaumont, Texas as a little girl with her enslaved parents. She was interviewed between 1936 and 1938, making her at least 80 years old. It's after the fold.

Go have some barbecue and strawberry soda, ya'll. Dance, listen to the stories of those older than you, and celebrate the freedoms we do have, however late they got here. Tomorrow we'll go back to the work of demanding more.

(Issabella Boyd, Beaumont, Texas, circa 1936-1938)

Click on images to enlarge. These are the best resolution available.


Blue said...

Thank you for this, Mags.

april said...

Thanks for the post Maggie, I remember as a child seeing a film in which a household of slaves were read the belated proclamation, and I had wondered if that were true. Wonderful celebration.

BTW typo - intro says 1965!