Happy Juneteenth! Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. This was two and a half years AFTER President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which had become official January 1, 1863.
The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.
One of General Granger’s first orders of business was to read to the people of Texas, General Order Number 3 which began with:
"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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer."
The reactions to this profound news ranged from 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.
The celebration of June 19th was coined "Juneteenth". Formerly enslaved people in Galveston celebrated after the announcement and upon the anniversary in the years to follow. The following year, freedmen in Texas organized the first of what became the annual celebration of "Jubilee Day" on June 19, or Juneteenth. It was listed on a "calendar of public events" by 1872 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 anannual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.
Often church grounds were the site for celebrations. Eventually, as African Americans became land owners, land was donated and dedicated for these festivities. One of the earliest documented land purchases in the name of Juneteenth was organized by Rev. Jack Yates. The fund-raising effort raised $1000 and made it possible to purchase what would become Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas. In Mexia, the local Juneteenth organization purchased land to become Booker T. Washington Park, which had become the Juneteenth celebration site in 1898.
Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday in 1979, going into effect January 1, 1980. The state holiday is widely credited to the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator. The successful passage of this bill marked Juneteenth as the first emancipation celebration granted official state recognition. Edwards has since actively sought to spread the observance of Juneteenth all across America.