Originally published on www.celebrations360.com
With the Emancipation Proclamation, effective January 1, 1863, the slaves in the states still in rebellion against the United States were declared free. This news was very slow in permeating the areas where slaves were actually held.
On June 19, 1865, Union forces led by Major General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas and informed the public that the slaves in Texas were free. This was combined with the news of General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April, signifying the end of the Civil War.
Why it took over two years for freedom of slaves to reach the area is open to much conjecture and speculation. Difficulties of transportation in that era combined with the chaos of the war led to significant delay of information reaching the western frontier of the former Confederacy. There is the often-repeated story of a messenger being murdered while on his way to Texas with the news. While the Emancipation Proclamation theoretically took effect over two years earlier, there were not enough federal troops in the area to enforce it. There is also speculation that this news was deliberately withheld from the area for several months to allow one more cotton harvest in the area using slave labor.
Whatever the reasons for the delay, once General Granger and his forces arrived, there was nearly instantaneous celebration. There were now enough Federal forces in the area to enforce this proclamation. As freed slaves often left the area for neighboring states of Arkansas and Louisiana, the culture of these celebrations moved with them.
Observance of this date was initially limited mostly to the African American community. These celebrations were often met with overt hostility from whites. There was often difficulty in finding locations where festivities could be held. They were mostly rural in nature, a common location being rural churches. A barbecue pit was the center of activities with feasting on lamb, beef, and pork. Other activities included fishing competitions, horse back riding, and rodeos.
The observance of Juneteenth declined in the early 20th century for many social and cultural reasons. Standard textbooks mentioned the Emancipation Proclamation, but contained little or no information on General Granger’s arrival in Galveston. The 4th of July, just three weeks later, was the focal point of patriotic celebrations. As the depression forced many rural people into the cities, and with the African American migration to the north, in this urban environment observances waned. This date had no official status, but was more of a cultural folk holiday. As with most unofficial holidays, its observance waxed and waned, and popular support varied considerably from place to place.
The civil rights movement brought about a resurgence of interest in the day’s significance. Some involved in the Civil Rights Movement focused more on the struggle for voting rights and social equality; others felt a stronger recognition of the past was crucial. Juneteenth freedom buttons were sometimes worn in civil rights marches in Atlanta in the early 1960s. In 1968, a Poor People’s March on Washington, with support of Rev. Ralph Abernathy, stimulated interest in this history. Participants took the idea of celebrating this date back home. Civil rights activity promoted a greater awareness in areas where it had not been previously observed. This led to well-established local events in Milwaukee and Minneapolis, among other northern cities. For many decades, San Francisco has held one of the largest Juneteenth celebrations.
With the efforts of Al Edwards, an African-American Texas State Legislator, in 1979 it became a formal state holiday in Texas. It is now observed as a proclamation holiday with formal recognition (though not a fully fledged work-free holiday) in 35 states.
Emancipation Day in Texas was first celebrated formally in 1980. In Washington, D.C., Emancipation Day is an official holiday on April 16, the date President Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act in 1862. In Florida, emancipation of the slaves is recognized on May 20, and it is on March 22 in Puerto Rico. Having several different dates with the same name leads to confusion. The term Juneteenth is most commonly used for the observance of General Granger’s arrival in Galveston on June 19. In most states, it is commonly observed on the third Saturday in June.
Today there are a wide variety of celebrations around the country. Food, especially the barbecue, remains important, and strawberry soda pop has a close association with the event. Other common activities include baseball, horseback riding, rodeos, and fishing competitions. In Utica, New York, there have been public barbecues and celebrations at Proctor Park in the past. On June 14, 2008, this was held Martin Luther King Dream Park on South Street in Utica.
As with most cultural and folk holidays, Juneteenth events have varied in scope from place to place over the years. In the past, Senator Obama (now President Obama) has co-sponsored legislation to make it a federal holiday. Whether or not it ever achieves that status, Juneteenth is a celebration of important historical significance, which seems to be growing in general recognition and popularity in recent years.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac, 2010.