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The Forgotten History of Juneteenth

Safisha Nzingha Hill, Ph.D.

Dr Pamela “Safisha Nzingha” Hill, is an Afrocentric Scholar and serves as Adjunct Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Social Work at The University of Texas, Arlington

Around the weekend of the 19th of June, many Black communities in Texas and as well as those across the country, celebrate Juneteenth to mark the day, in 1865, nearly two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, when word reached the shores of Galveston TX, declaring enslaved Africans as free people. Community celebrations include parades, picnics, festivals, baseball games, Miss Juneteenth Pageants, concerts, speakers, etc. In 1980, Juneteenth became a recognized state holiday in Texas and is now recognized in at least 46 other states. But how much do we really know about Juneteenth and why did it take so long for the word to reach Texas?

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, ran on a platform which included opposition to the expansion of slavery into the new territories. This did not set well with many Southern states, which was dependent on slave labor for its economy. South Carolina was the first to break away or seceded from Union of The United States. Soon other states followed including Alabama, Florida, Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas. These states became known as the Confederate States of America. This division naturally created tensions between the North and South and on April 12, 1861, Confederate soldiers attacked Union soldiers in South Carolina. This was the beginning of the Civil War and would last approximately four years until April 9, 1865

In August of 1862, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to Horace Greely, founder and editor of the New York Tribune and stated:

“ If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union”

By September of 1862, Lincoln in an effort to restore the Union, issued a preliminary decree stating that, unless the rebellious states returned to the Union by January 1, freedom would be granted to slaves within those states. The decree also left room for a plan of compensated emancipation however no Confederate states took the offer.  Additionally he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation that same month, yet he did not issue this proclamation immediately. It became obvious that none of the seceding states would return to the Union. On January 1, 1963, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free”

It is important to understand that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all enslaved Africans in the United States. Rather, it declared free only those living in states not under Union control which included South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Texas. It is also important to understand that there were “border” Union states that maintained slavery and the proclamation DID NOT include the states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. So the question remains, why did Africans in Texas remain enslaved when others were declared free?  There are a couple of stories connected with this. First historians suggest that a messenger who was to deliver the news of emancipation to Texas, was shot and killed as he was on his way. It is also suggested that enslavers were aware of the news and kept it from the enslaved Africans, and another story that suggest federal troops delayed going into Texas to allow plantation owners to benefit from the cotton harvest.  Finally, on June 19, 1865, General Gordan Granger arrives in Galveston with 1800 Union troops reading General Order Number 3 which stated:

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 ‘

It is important to note that in the original Emancipation Proclamation, it was declared that “such personals of suitable condition will be received in to the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations and other places and to man vessels of all sorts in said service”, however General Order #3 advised the freedmen to remain on the plantation and indicated they would not be allowed to seek refuge at military post. Perhaps this was because the Civil War had ended and there was no longer a need for Black men to join the army.

Although the proclamation of freedom was finally delivered to Texas, in June of many were still enslaved months later in October. We must understand that the Emancipation was a proclamation and not a law. Hence it was actually the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, ratified on December 6, 1865, that LEGALLY abolished slavery and It reads:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Many Black churches still embrace the tradition of Watch Night Services to pray in the New Year, following the historical night of December 31, 1860, as enslaved Africans in those confederate states waited on freedom to come at the stroke of midnight of January 1, 1861 when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. However, we understand that Juneteenth is recognized as Emancipation Day and continues to be celebrated by the descendants of all enslaved Africans who were held in bondage in the United States of America, as we realize that none of us were free until all of us were free.

As June 19th approaches, reflect on your Ancestors and what they likely endured. Remember that you are only here because THEY survived. You have material things and are afforded the opportunities you have because they stayed alive in order to birth the seeds of your great, great grandparents. Never disrespect your Ancestors by boasting what YOU would have done if you had been enslaved. I guarantee you that none of us would have survived. We don’t have the strength of our mother’s momma mama or father’s daddy papa. They survived so that today, we can thrive. I leave with you one of my favorite African Proverbs as we celebrate and honor our Ancestors this Juneteenth… 

“If we stand tall, it is because we stand on the backs of those who came before us”.

References

Abraham Lincoln Letter to Horace Greely, August, 1862

Emancipation Proclamation, 1862

General Order #3, June 1865