Book A Cemetery Tour

General Orders, Number 3
Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865:

“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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

Major General Gordon Granger issued this order and fully established the Union Army’s control over Texas, creating a holiday known as Juneteenth.  In doing so, the final pieces were in place to mark the end of the Civil War.  Slavery in Texas had been evolving over the last several years and enforcing this order would prove difficult.  Slave owners east of the Mississippi River had begun moving their slaves to Texas as early as 1862 to stay out of the reach of the Union Army.  More than 150,000 enslaved African Americans were forced to make this move, joining nearly 100,000 enslaved African Americans already in Texas.

When those 2,000 Union soldiers arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, on June 19, 1865, the immediate impact of General Orders, Number 3 was unclear.  There was mass confusion and slave owners delayed making the announcements until they were forced to do so by United States government officials.  It was perilous for newly freed men and women to act on their status, many who tried to leave were beaten or killed.  By September, 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau had arrived in Texas to assist with the transition from slavery to freedom.  Reconstruction, officially in place from 1865 through 1877, was filled with hope, struggle, and change.  Formerly enslaved people worked to reunite families, establish schools, push for legislation, and run for office.

In Texas, Juneteenth marked a day to celebrate freedom, bring families together, and mark the forward progress of equality.  Families would gather together to read the Emancipation Proclamation, sing spirituals, and remember struggles.  As time moved forward, these celebrations were met with pushback.  Reconstruction proved to be an incredibly turbulent time with political pressure coming from all sides.  Many Northerners thought that President Andrew Johnson was too lenient with his policies regarding the reintegration of Southern states.  Southern politicians enacted “black codes” as a way to control the livelihoods of newly freed African Americans.  By the late 1870s, Reconstruction had ended and the culture of the South shifted again to that of White Supremacy with organizations like the Ku Klux Klan establishing a long lasting political hold.

Texas Juneteeth Celebration, 1900

Texas Juneteenth Day Celebration, 1900; courtesy Austin History Center, Austin Public Library
click image to enlarge

Local governments throughout the south refused to allow the Black community to use public spaces to celebrate Juneteenth.  In turn, Black communities came together to purchase land to create their own Juneteenth celebration sites, like Emancipation Park in Houston.  With the Great Migration, the holiday moved beyond Texas and by the 1920s, the celebration was marked with newspaper advertisements for fine Juneteenth clothing.  By the 1940s, many in the Black community found it difficult to continue celebrating a holiday that marked the end of slavery in a world where equality was still a far off goal.  In 1968, following the assassination of Civil Rights Leader Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Poor People’s Campaign marked June 19 as Solidarity Day.  This moment marked a rebirth of the holiday on a national level.

A 1999 issue of The Buckeye Review featured a story about Juneteenth, noting, “What we must remember are the hardships our ancestors endured so that we could prosper.  Just as families came together to celebrate their long awaited freedom in 1865, we should do the same today.  We have come a long way from the chains and irons that once bound our family members, but not enough.  … Remember, the seeds of our destiny are nurtured by the roots of our past.  We are here today, because of those who came before us.”

In 2002, a Youngstown Juneteenth celebration was held at the Holy Trinity Missionary Baptist Church.  Organizer Tamica D. Green told the Youngstown Vindicator, “Juneteenth symbolizes the end of slavery and has come to symbolize for many blacks what the Fourth of July symbolizes for all Americans: Freedom.”  In a 2004 Youngstown Vindicator interview, Elizabeth Hudson, founder of the Unity Building on McGuffey Road, said the events surrounding the start of Juneteenth are ingrained in the black community and should not be forgotten. “This is our Fourth of July. This is in our culture. It is with us. It is something that happened to us.”


Season Four, Episode One; courtesy ABC
click image to enlarge

In recent years, Juneteenth has taken on a more widely recognized role.  Today, 47 states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday.  In 2017, the TV show Black-ish focused on Juneteenth with a musical episode, including a segment in partnership with Aloe Blacc and The Roots to highlight the history of celebration.  Following the nationwide protests in response to the killing of George Floyd in 2020, several organizations have set Juneteenth as a company holiday and Google added Juneteenth to its US Holiday Calendar.

Emancipation Statue

The Texas African-American History Memorial in Austin, Texas; photographer Elaine Thompson; courtesy AP Photo

In recent weeks, the conversation about racial history and the history of the Confederate States of America has been amplified to its loudest in decades.  Monuments to Confederate leaders are being removed, organizations are banning the traditional “Confederate Flag” from being displayed, and historians are working around the clock to tell a clear and unbiased history of this subject.

The end of slavery had been a long time coming and the fight to see its end started with pockets of abolitionists speaking out.  African slavery had existed in the British Colonies since 1619, and by 1860 there were nearly 4 million enslaved African Americans in the United States.  The political strife of the 1840s and 1850s was largely centered around the question of slavery, highlighted by events like the Christiana Riot, Bleeding Kansas, the Dred Scott Decision, and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.  There is no question that the centerpiece of the Civil War was slavery.  Southern states outlined their positions in secession documents with a clear link between the need to see slavery continue and their desire to leave the United States of America.  In Georgia, their secession documents note that Northern states had been attacking the institution of slavery for decades.  Here are just a few of their comments about politics in the North:

…anti-slavery is its mission and its purpose. … While the subordination and the political and social inequality of the African race was fully conceded by all, it was plainly apparent that slavery would soon disappear from what are now the non-slave-holding States of the original thirteen.

The prohibition of slavery in the Territories, hostility to it everywhere, the equality of the black and white races, disregard of all constitutional guarantees in its favor, were boldly proclaimed by its leaders and applauded by its followers.

Mississippi’s secession documents link slavery, its most basic and important “institution”, to the central foundations of the world:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation.

There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin. That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution.”

In Texas, the narrative goes even further, claiming that equality goes against the basic teachings of the Christian faith:

In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color– a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

That in this free government *all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights*; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.

Emancipation of the Negroes–The Past and the Future; Harper's Weekly, January 24, 1863

Emancipation of the Negroes–The Past and the Future; Harper’s Weekly, January 24, 1863
click image to enlarge

By 1862, President Abraham Lincoln made it clear that the United States would not shy away from a bold statement about fighting to end slavery. On September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation which stated that Southern states had until January 1, 1863, to stop the war or he would issue a full proclamation declaring their slaves to be free. The Confederacy did not stop fighting and the full Emancipation Proclamation was issued and all enslaved people in rebelling states were free. The document’s direct impact on slavery would change over the course of the next two years as the Union Army took control of various Southern regions. The document also opened the door for African Americans to serve in the Union Army with more than 200,000 joining by War’s end. Passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate on January 31 and April 8, 1865, respectively, and ratified by the required number of states on December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States abolished slavery throughout the country.

The War ended in the days and weeks after the Thirteenth Amendment passed through Congress. On April 9, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant took the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. On April 26, 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman took the surrender of General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. On May 4, 1865, the Confederate forces under Lt. General Richard Taylor surrendered followed by Lt. General Nathan Bedford Forrest on May 9. By this point, nearly all of the hostilities east of the Mississippi River had come to an end. The Battle of Palmito Ranch in Texas, May 12, marked the last significant hostilities of the War. Confederate Lt. General E. Kirby Smith’s Army of the Trans-Mississippi was the last major Southern force, and he surrendered on May 26 in Galveston, Texas. It wasn’t until August 20, 1866 that President Andrew Johnson declared that the War had officially ended. Over the last 155 years, the history of race relations in the United States has been filled with turmoil, violence, and protests. Throughout those years, though, progress has been made as we have marched towards equality. In light of recent events, we can only hope that the progress will continue.