Written by: Rebecca Hankins, Professor and Curator at TAMU Cushing Memorial Library & Archives
Juneteenth, also called Freedom Day, is the combining of June and the 19th day to commemorate the day enslaved Africans were freed in Texas June 19th, 1865, the last Confederate state to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation (EP). It is celebrated as the day the last enslaved Africans were freed, two years and 6 months after President Abraham Lincoln signed the EP freeing all enslaved Africans in the 10 remaining Confederate states, January 1, 1863.
Why wasn’t the EP enforced in Texas, because at the time of Lincoln signing the EP there were no Union soldiers in Texas to enforce the order. Many of the white slave owners fled to Texas in the hopes of using it as a sanctuary and garrison against the Union, a place where they could maintain their status. On June 18, Union Army General Gordon Granger arrived at Galveston Island with 2,000 federal troops to occupy Texas on behalf of the federal government. On June 19th the proclamation titled General Order Number 3 was read by General Granger:
"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."
Stories are told of freed people wearing their best clothes and walking everywhere so they could be seen as free. Many left their plantations as a symbol of their freedom. Others traveled to nearby states attempting to find family members sold away. Many of the freed enslaved men and women claimed land left after slave owners abandoned them to the Union Army. The newly freed celebrated by dragging their former slave cabins away from the slave quarters and into their own fields. Women reduced their labor in the fields and could now devote more time to childcare and their own homes. Now families could work for their own prosperity and livelihoods. It was a time of celebration and uncertainty. The election of Andrew Johnson as President, himself a former slave owner, changed the trajectory of the freed men and women in particular after he restored many of the liberated lands to the former slave owners. This led many freed people to enter into sharecropping and other forms of servitude to former masters that inevitably caused them to lose their land and independence.
For years African Americans celebrated Juneteenth by returning to Galveston, Texas as an annual pilgrimage to the place where they first learned of their freedom. They went to share prayer, food, commemoration, and celebration. African American Former Texas State Rep Al Edwards who was born in Houston in 1937 and first elected as a state representative in 1978 from Houston. A year later, in 1979, Edwards authored and sponsored House Bill 1016, making June 19th (“Juneteenth”) an official paid state holiday in Texas, although it is not a Federal holiday. Representative Edward continued to spread the observance of Juneteenth across America; he passed away this year, April 29, 2020.