On June 19, 1865 Union Army General Gordon Granger, landed on the shores of Galveston, Texas and announced that, according to the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, all slaves in states at war with the Union were free. However, for political and military reasons, the proclamation failed to include slaves being held in territory not at war with the United States. The Proclamation read as follows: “All enslaved person in the Confederate States of America in rebellion and not in Union hands were to be freed.” This excluded the states of Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri as well as those counties of Virginia that remained in the Union, and eventually became the state of West Virginia. So, one can argue that the Proclamation did not free any of the slaves in this country since the laws of the United States were not recognized by those states, that had seceded from the Union to include Texas.
Because Texas was geographically isolated from most the country and especially where the rebellion was taken place, the Emancipation did not reach the Lone Star State until after the Civil War was over. It was on April 9, 1865 Robert E. Lee surrendered the last major Confederate Army to General Ulysses S. Grant, at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. That happened two months before General Granger read the Proclamation in Galveston, Texas, and therefore it was not enforced in the state until after the Civil War ended. Granger arrived with two-thousand Union soldiers for the purpose of occupying Texas on behalf of the federal government.
Standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa and looking down at a large gathering of Blacks curious to learn more about their freedom, Granger read the following statement:
“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 and 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 wagers. 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.”
The last two sentences of Granger’s speech are informative as to what was coming with that freedom. There is no indication that the freed slaves would receive any kind of help from the government financially, and that the acres of land owned by slaveholders would be equally shared with the slaves. In other words, they were on their own and what was best for them was to remain on the plantations as assumed free men and women.
However, freedom without opportunity was not freedom at all. Black Americans began to celebrate June 19 naming it Juneteenth. There were picnics, public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation and songs. As the years passed, these celebrations became more expansive. Celebrations included rodeos, street fairs, cookouts, family reunions, park parties and Miss Juneteenth contests. But these celebrations were simply a guise to what was happening to them all over the country and in Texas. The opportunity to share in the freedoms that white America enjoyed were soon denied Blacks after the very short period of Reconstruction. By the year 1876, racism took over and Jim Crow laws ruled the day. For the most part, Blacks were relegated to sharecroppers, that was, in reality, a new version of slavery. They were the captives of an economic system that demanded they work for mere pittance in order to survive. Lynching became the mode of punishment for anyone complaining about their status in the system.
Despite the terrible oppression the people of color were forced to live under, they still managed to survive and each year they continued to celebrate Juneteenth. Instead of a celebration of freedom it became and still is a celebration of hope. Black Americans still struggle for equal opportunity. On this Juneteenth we must, as a people, make that celebration not of freedom but of the strength, greatness and endurance of our ancestors, who walked off those plantations determined not to allow anything to stand in their way of survival.