Juneteenth: America’s second Independence Day

By

Suzanne Wilson

Juneteenth, a portmanteau of the words “June” and “nineteenth,” was born out of what was once referred to as the “peculiar institution” of the United States.

It references the day 153 years ago this year when a quarter of a million people — still held captive in the years after the Emancipation Proclamation — walked away from the fields in which they were forced to toil; out of the houses in which they served under duress; and onto the roads they constructed to begin a new but uncertain future as free men, women and children.

In colloquial expression it has been called America’s “second Independence Day” after the Continental Congress approved the final text of the Declaration of Independence from British rule on July 4, 1776. But for many, particularly those whose ancestry and lineage have been all but scrubbed from the annals of American history due to 250 years of that peculiar institution, Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, has come to represent a true day of independence from slaveholding rule.

Growing in observances and recognition, Juneteenth is recognized as a state holiday or observance in 45 states. But it has been a slow journey to awareness — not unlike the protracted process of emancipation, said author and Professor Calvin Schermerhorn of the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University.

“Juneteenth celebrations were as much about the unfinished work of freedom as about the accomplished fact of slavery’s end,” Schermerhorn said. “Freedom was already and not yet complete since economic and civil rights were slow to follow. Even the soldiers that proclaimed black Texans free of slavery encouraged them to keep their shoulders to the plow, stay in their places and to accept peace over justice.”

Schermerhorn recently shared more about the history and significance of Juneteenth in this Q&A with ASU Now:

Question: What is Juneteenth, and what is the tradition behind the observance of the day?

Answer: Juneteenth began in 1865 in Texas when some 250,000 formerly enslaved people were officially freed — two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. On June 19, 1865, Union Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3, which read: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” The order went on to assert “an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.” Juneteenth, argues one historian, “was a new word signifying a new world.”

African-Americans in Texas turned the day into a celebration of freedom and an occasion to push for equal rights and opportunities. At first, it was specific to Texas but moved with migrating black Texans all over the United States. Towns like Covert, Michigan, and Tucson, Arizona, were holding Juneteenth celebrations by the early 20th century. Since African-Americans migrating out of Texas tended to go west, the holiday migrated west with them, though by the late 20th century it was popular all over the U.S.

Calvin Schermerhorn

Q: Why was the Emancipation Proclamation not enforced in Texas?

A: The Emancipation Proclamation was a war measure authorizing the president as commander-in-chief of the armed forces to liberate enslaved people in states and parts of states in active rebellion against the U.S. on Jan. 1, 1863. It signaled that the Union war effort was now a war against slavery, but it was not enforceable in places outside Union control. Only when Texas as a state of the Confederacy fell to Union forces did emancipation arrive in law, despite the fact that many black Texans had already freed themselves as a practical matter. Gen. Granger arrived in June 1865 to reassert federal — not Confederate — supremacy and issued the emancipation order. Many, if not most white Texans did not accept the freedom verdict of the Civil War, and Texas did not ratify the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery until 1870, some five years after Congress passed it. Reconstruction-era Texas also saw some of the worst racist violence and murders of African-American people by white militants.

Q: What were some of the immediate challenges for the belatedly freed men and women of Texas after they received the news of their emancipation?

A: Freedom came with no back wages, no land transfer and no other compensation to those who were formerly enslaved. They received nothing but freedom and had to return to work under many circumstances for former owners who still owned land and other means of production. Many formerly enslaved people emerged in freedom on a war-torn landscape of sickness and scarcity. Some who had toiled all their lives were ill and unable to toil on. Others were orphans, injured or dislocated. The Civil War devastated large swaths of the American South, and economic recovery was haltingly slow.

In Texas as in many other areas, former enslavers took a dim view of people of African descent, offering labor contracts that looked a lot like slavery. Those gave way to sharecropping arrangements that put the croppers or tenants in perpetual debt. There were urban black populations who became middle class, voted and held public office. But despite the heroic struggles of civil rights leaders, African-American political participation and power was fleeting. The height of black political participation was in the years between when Congress remilitarized the South in 1867 and the panic of 1873, which sapped the political will of federal authorities to combat a militant white supremacist insurgency that took the form of the Ku Klux Klan and other Democratic Party political organizations.

Q: When and how was the first Juneteenth celebrated?

A: It was celebrated first in Austin in 1867, and by 1872 it was a celebration that drew crowds of thousands in parts of Texas. In subsequent years, some localities let prisoners out of jails for the day to join the celebration. In Galveston and elsewhere, women took the lead in celebrating Juneteenth and making it the pretext for political discussions. In 1919, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) opened a branch in Galveston, women activists used Juneteenth as a date to meet at churches and urge more resources for education for African-American children. By then Juneteenth was so important that even white employers gave black workers the day off.

It was celebrated with barbecues, parades, floats and speeches, many of which were organized by the Women’s Nineteenth of June Committee in Galveston. It was therefore a day of protest and of celebration as an occasion to mark freedom that was only partly accomplished.

As Texas historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner argues, “No other public event instilled African-Americans with such awareness and historic pride, and perhaps no other event so publicly managed to voice the desire for sexual equality that black women had been quietly demonstrating in their churches, schools and clubs.”

Q:  It feels like we are at a point in time culturally where Americans are taking a deeper look at history and some of the narratives that have been left out of history books. Where does Juneteenth fall in with those “lost” narratives?  

A: Juneteenth as an African-American celebration of emancipation rose in the late 20th century as a way of reviving earlier Freedom Day celebrations and, more generally, as a way of raising awareness of African-Americans’ struggles against slavery and the racist violence of Jim Crow. It became the pretext for the Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C., in 1968. Until the 1960s — and in many history books much later — black Americans were marginalized. Historians routinely ignored or downplayed slavery, Jim Crow violence and the racist legacies of both. Instead, a grand patriotic narrative held sway and American history was a triumphal story of white generals, inventors and leaders. We see a version of this process in debates and conflicts over Confederate monuments. Monuments to Confederate leaders and generals were put up as assertions of white supremacy cloaked in a language of local struggles against a distant tyrannical government — the government of Abraham Lincoln. That and other such stories distorted or ignored troubled parts of American history.

The same is true of Native Americans, women and many immigrant groups. Juneteenth emerged in part to reclaim the central importance of black history — to put African-Americans back into the story of American history. It also revived a black holiday of remembrance. In the post-Civil War nation, Freedom Day celebrations varied from state to state among African-descended Americans who had been enslaved or were members of formerly enslaved families. African-Americans in parts of Virginia, for instance, celebrated Surrender Day on April 9, the day when the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee surrendered. Whenever it was celebrated, the day usually coincided with an event signaling black freedom. But such celebrations fell off in the early 20th century, and they were revived generations later. Juneteenth became an official holiday in Texas in 1980, and proclamations in other states and locales have broadened it to a holiday commemorating emancipation and promoting respect and dignity of all peoples in freedom struggles.

Top Photo: "Emancipation" by Thomas Nast. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Emancipation Proclamation, author Abraham Lincoln. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana