Unless you live in Texas, you may be unfamiliar with what has just this week been made the newest US holiday. On June 15, 2021, the US Senate unanimously passed a resolution cosponsored by Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and John Cornyn (R-TX) declaring June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day. On June 16, the Senate bill reached the larger chamber where the House version sponsored by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), having accrued an additional 200 sponsors, passed quickly. On June 17, President Joe Biden signed it into law having just returned from Europe where he attended the G7 conference and meetings with his European counterparts. Biden stated that signing the bill into law would be a highlight of his presidency. He further commented, “Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments…they embrace them.”
June 19 has been a state holiday in Texas since January 1980, long before any other state recognized its importance. As McKenzie Jean-Phillipe writing for Oprah Daily said, June 19 is important because it was the day when all Americans were finally acknowledged to be free. Given Texas’ history as a former Confederate state and that of its pre-Civil Rights Jim Crow laws, Texas may not seem the most likely of places for a celebration of emancipation to become formalized, but it is actually where it all began.
Americans learn in their US History classes that President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 at the height of the Civil War. It declared all slaves in the rebelling Confederate southern states to be free, but neglected to mention any form of freedom for slaves being held in the Union supporting border states. It was feared that freeing slaves in those states, Missouri, Maryland, Kentucky, and Delaware, would push them into sympathy with the Confederacy or perhaps into outright secession. That risk of increasing the Confederacy’s strength was simply too great at that point. Lincoln has been criticized for the politically expedient nature of his proclamation, but given that the war’s outcome was still uncertain, one can understand his motivations. It would be another 28 months, and nearly a month after Confederate surrender, that all formerly enslaved persons would learn they were free.
Texas was the most distant of the Confederate states and did not see much in the way of major battles. Only three, including the last battle of the Civil War, Palmito Ranch near Brownsville, were fought here. During hostilities, Union forces made several attempts to take control of the Texas coast at Galveston, Corpus Christi, and Brownsville with limited success. Had they been victorious, they would have found some citizens rejoicing for not all Texans were in favor of secession. Governor Sam Houston, who had played such a huge role in making Texas an independent republic and then in bringing it into the Union was so distraught over the vote to secede that he resigned his office and went home to Huntsville where he died in 1863 at age 70. 68 persons from the fairly recent German immigrant population in Central Texas made an unsuccessful attempt to reach Union troops in Mexico. 27 were killed by Confederate forces and more drowned trying to swim the Rio Grande. When things began to turn against a Confederate victory, slaveholders from neighboring states found refuge in Texas’ relative isolation, bringing their slaves with them and keeping those enslaved from all knowledge of emancipation.
When Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, the Civil War was effectively over. Other surrenders would have to take place before the Union gained complete control, but once Lee’s domino fell, the other commanders followed. The difficulty of communications being what they were at the time, The Battle of Palmito Ranch (May 13, 1865) took place before word reached the far-flung Texas outpost that the war was over. Even so, enslaved persons in Texas did not know they were free and life continued in all of its hardships just as it always had.
It was not until Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston on June 19, 1865 and read General Order No. 3 that those who had been enslaved from birth learned of emancipation and the war’s end. There are stories of the formerly enslaved simply turning and walking away for parts unknown. They often fled the state to search for loved ones elsewhere in the south or to the relative safety of northern states. While June 19 was a joyous day, the order was not particularly reassuring in all of its language. The words read by Gen. Granger: “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.”
Texas is a big place. Unless one is a truly dedicated driver, it takes two days on Interstate 10 to travel from the Louisiana state line to El Paso on the border with New Mexico, a total of 860 miles. Even today, there are places so isolated one must travel many miles to find a neighbor. It should not come as a surprise that some enslaved persons did not achieve their freedom for months, sometimes a couple of years after General Order No. 3 was first read in Galveston. Some slaveholders were reluctant to release the formerly enslaved and used violence to maintain control. Others simply hid the news due to distance and isolation. The last reported incident involved the persons enslaved by a horse thief named Alex Simpson who only achieved their freedom after he was hanged in 1868.
In the years following the war, African-Americans began celebrations of June 19, dubbed Juneteenth, but with virulent segregation rapidly filling the void left by the end slavery, they had no place to parade or congregate. Groups across the state raised money to buy land so they could hold their celebrations. In Houston, Baptist minster and former slave the Rev. Jack Yates led his Antioch Baptist Church congregation in joining forces with members of Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church to form the Colored People’s Festival and Emancipation Park Association. They raised $1000 and purchased 10 acres of land near current downtown and named it Emancipation Park. The park was eventually acquired by the City of Houston and was the only place for Black persons to gather or swim until the Civil Rights Act abolished segregation.
On June 7, 1979, the State of Texas enacted legislation declaring Juneteenth to be a state holiday. The bill was introduced by Representative Al Edwards of Houston and was signed into law by Governor William P. Clements, Jr. The first state-sponsored Juneteenth holiday took place the following year.