A Deep-Dive Into The History of Juneteenth

Audrey Vertovec
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June 18, 2021

"General Granger brought the news to

Galveston: "The war is over! "

President Lincoln signed a decree;

The Emancipation Proclamation

declares, "All who live in bondage here

shall from now until be free."

After 300 years of forced labor;

hands bound, descendants of Africa

picked up their souls - all that they

owned - leaving shackles where they fell

on the ground, headed for the nearest

resting place to be found."

When Major General Gordon Granger rode his horse into Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, he brought with him a message of remarkable hope: General Order Number Three. "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 Civil War was over, and the Union had been victorious. Slaves were now free from slavery under the Emancipation Proclamation, signed two and a half years before.

Until Granger, a representative of the US government, rode into Galveston to read the decree in person, many plantation owners chose not to tell the slaves of their new lawful freedom, as they were unwilling to give up their labor. If the slaves tried to leave, many were injured or killed. It wasn't until the war was officially won on April 9, 1865 that Union soldiers could enforce the new law in these states. As historian Lonnie Brunch told NPR, "What the Emancipation Proclamation does that's so important is it begins a creeping process of emancipation where the federal government is now finally taking firm stands to say slavery is wrong and it must end."

Black Americans in Galveston were ecstatic and shocked when they heard the news. They stepped off of the plantation land without shackles and fear of retribution for the first time in their lives, eager to start a new life and reunite with family members and friends who had been sold off. Black Americans were finally legally considered human beings and not property, and it was a day of genuine jubilation for the 250,000 slaves in Texas.

In the years following, many former slaves traveled back to Galveston to celebrate the day their lives changed forever. The commemorating tradition spread to surrounding areas, and many white people attempted to restrict the festivities. In 1872, Reverend Jack Yates, a Baptist minister and former slave, raised $1000 to purchase a plot of land in Houston so that Juneteenth could be celebrated without retaliation. It’s now known as Emancipation Park and is home to one of the largest Juneteenth celebrations in the country every year. 

The Texas African American History Memorial in Emancipation Park

"Every year in the Lone Star State, and

in towns from sea to sea,

sons and daughters of the ones who

were held celebrate the time when

their forebears got the news -

"The war was over; all men were free."

They will always remember;

they will never forget Juneteenth

When their forebears could shout,

"Free at Last! Hallelujah, I'm free."

Listen to Sojourner Kincaid Rolle narrate the rest of her incredible "Free at Last: A Juneteenth Poem" and read more about Juneteenth here.

A Day Of Reflection

Juneteenth is a day of remembrance and reflection, though it's also a day that can be painful as we mourn the loss of so many, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Eric Garner. While Juneteenth was officially declared a national holiday this year, it is a bittersweet victory as Black Americans mourn the continual loss of life that has plagued our country since its inception. "Until corporate leadership looks different, until there are actual policies that are created in this country to protect the marginalized and that uplift the marginalized voices," Lazarus Lynch, a New York-based artist, chef, and author told the New York Times, "I'm not interested in quick service solutions."

As Juneteenth has been left out of many school curricula, it’s essential to educate ourselves on the history of this important holiday. To learn more about its history and its importance, check out Four Hundred Souls by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain. In their incredible retelling of the journey of African Americans from 1619 to the present, Kendi and Blain challenge readers to consider our past when shaping our future. Additionally, Juneteenth for Mazie by Floyd Cooper teaches children not only about the celebrations and traditions but the history of how the slaves were freed through beautiful pictures and an uplifting story. 

Juneteeth for Mazie by Floyd Cooper

If you’re looking for additional books that will help you understand how Black Americans continue to be impacted by structural racism, consider one of the books on Charis Books’ “Understanding and Dismantling Racism: A Booklist for White Readers” list. The BookClub team is reading Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall in honor of Juneteenth, and look forward to discussing it as a group.

Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall

Learning the history and importance of Juneteenth and structural racism is essential. How are you and your community commemorating the holiday? Share with us at  @bookclubdotcom on Twitter or Instagram. 

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