16.9.11

America's Second Independence Day

Friday, 19 June 1896 - Galveston, Texas

Ashton Villa,
site of America's true Independence Day
Today is Juneteenth, the 19th of June. Some historians will tell you this is the day the Emancipation Proclamation was created and slavery ended. They are probably historians studying the Roman Period who know little about American history.

Trying to pin down the day slavery ended in the United States is a problem. On 22 September 1862 President Abraham Lincoln announced he was going to issue a formal emancipation proclamation freeing the slaves in all the Confederate states that refused to come back to the fold. He didn’t get around to actually signing it until 1 January 1863. None of the states returned. It did however make slavery a genuine issue of the war and kept Britain, who had long ago abolished slavery, from siding with the Confederacy.

If it only freed slaves in the states that were no longer in the Union, then no slaves were actually freed, right? Wrong. Any time the Union occupied Confederate lands, the slaves there were freed. As for the North, there was still slavery in the border states that stayed in the Union. They quietly, one by one, ended slavery in their state governments. Slavery wasn’t officially abolished until the 13th Amendment was ratified in all the states by December 1865. And of course there were those slaves who simply took matters into their own hands, and escaped from their masters.

Therefore the slaves were freed bit by bit, rather than all at once. So what one date would you celebrate the end to slavery?

General Gordon Granger
The African-Americans in Galveston know the exact date slavery ended. On 18 June 1865, General Gordon Granger and 2,000 Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take possession of the state and enforce the emancipation of its slaves. Apparently Texas hadn’t heard (or simply ignored) that General Lee had already surrendered the Confederate Army two months before on 9 April 1865.

The next day, on the 19th of June, General Granger stood on the balcony of Ashton Villa and read “General Order Number Three” which said:

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.

Everyone is dressed up for Juneteenth
Not very poetic even rather demeaning in its content, but the slaves read between the lines. THEY WERE FREE! They no longer belonged to anyone but themselves. The now former slaves took to the streets in jubilation and had an impromptu party. They had so much fun they decided to do it again next year. Since that time, every 19th of June, they celebrate their freedom. Now the celebration is a little more organized with parades and picnics and performances. They also decided “June Nineteenth” was a mouthful and sort of scrunched it all together to create "Juneteenth."

Since that time Juneteenth has spread all over Texas and across the nation, giving all African-Americans one special day to celebrate the end of slavery. Sadly in the 20th century, when this generation who knew slavery dies out, Juneteenth will slowly fade away. Many African-Americans will be embarrassed by their slave ancestors. I know that seems odd. I would think being descended from a slave owner would be something to really be ashamed of.

Luckily a hundred years from now, the "Modern Juneteenth Movement" will begin, bringing the holiday back. State by state will make it an official holiday until it finally becomes a national holiday in the mid-21st century. It will become more of a celebration to honor and remember the victims of slavery.

One of the many Juneteenth bands
It also is a chance to celebrate African-American culture--especially music, whether jazz, gospel or blues. They are already doing that, although jazz hasn’t been invented yet. I heard a church choir singing “Let My People Go” today. If ever there was a protest song disguised as a spiritual, this is it!

the face of a former slave
It’s only been 31 years, so there are still folks alive who remember slavery all too well. They know what it was like to be whipped, or worse to watch your family being sold, never to see them again. You can see the pain etched in the faces of the older people here. But today there are smiles on those faces. Today is a day to rejoice, and even though I have never known their hardships, their joy is contagious.


Let My People Go as performed by the Harlem Gospel Singers

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