“Freedom came at different times in different ways for different people, because emancipation was not merely a legal enactment. It was a dynamic historical process that unfolded in secular and sacred time,” writes Adam Rothman in the essay “Slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction,” in “American History Now.”
Indeed. On June 19, 1865, U.S. Brig. Gen. Gordon Granger marched into Galveston, Texas, with 1,800 men and posted himself on the balcony of the building that once had stood as the headquarters of the Confederate States Army posted in that city to read General Order No. 3 – all slaves were emancipated.
Given, this event in Texas occurred a good four months after Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to United States Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the courthouse in Appomattox, Va., and two years after U.S. President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, that freed all slaves in the Confederate states. The chief reason for this lag in time rests in a Confederate blockade that protected most of Texas from significant battles during the Civil War.
Some Southern slave owners, knowing this, and either ignoring the Emancipation Proclamation or refusing the President’s authority, sent their slaves over to Texas in those two years prior to Granger’s announcement, and hid them as refugees.
It is likely those slave owners who sent the “refugees” to Texas acted out of self-preservation. Immediately after Lincoln issued the proclamation, freed slaves were able to fight in the United States Army and many did with gusto. These same Southerners had experienced so-called “uprisings,” since the proclamation’s issue, including in Lafayette County former slaves “driving off their overseers and dividing land and implements among themselves,” writes Eugene Genovese in “Roll Jordon Roll: The World the Slaves Made.”
Juneteenth, however, has become the standard for celebrating freedom, since that day in Galveston. In those early years, former slaves marked the day with large gatherings to commemorate their freedom and to begin talking of political influence and voting rights. Yet, in the early 20th century, because of the “Red Scare,” and nativism, whites and some blacks viewed Juneteenth as un-American because of the negative mark against the United States as a result of the Civil War, writes Shenette Garrett-Scott in ‘”When Peace Come: Teaching the Significance of Juneteenth.” She also notes the lynching of black men, women and children during this era.
Garrett-Scott goes on to point out that Juneteenth regained its celebratory status, beginning in Dallas, when Antonio Marco Smith, organizer of the Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce in 1936, sought to set up an exhibit hall at the Texas Centennial Exposition in that same year. The white organizers told him no, but he gathered a nationwide coalition that succeeded in obtaining a $100,000 federal grant. The Hall of Negro Life opened at the exposition on Juneteenth 1936.
More and more Juneteenth became popular to mark freedom even among black soldiers in World War II, who would often be photographed shooting a Double V sign: One hand for battling fascism abroad and the other hand for battling racism at home, setting the stage for the civil rights movement, one of the highlights of which was the 1968 Poor Peoples March on Washington held on – yes, June 19.
So, mark today as an auspicious one in the history of the country, and a part of, as Eric Foner wrote of Reconstruction, “America’s unfinished revolution.”