June 5, 2013

Origins of Juneteenth celebration


---- — If you want to understand that oddly named holiday known as Juneteenth, you must first understand the Emancipation Proclamation.

On Jan. 1, 1863, the day that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, only some 200,000 of the estimated 4 million slaves on American soil were freed.

Contrary to what many believe, the proclamation did not free all of the African slaves within the United States but only those in the 11 states that seceded from the Union and were unwilling to return.

In September of the preceding year, President Lincoln decreed that unless the Confederate states returned to the Union by the first of January all slaves within their borders would be freed. In other words, if they returned to the Union they could keep their slaves; but no Confederate state accepted the offer.

When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on Jan. 1, its exact wording was: “all persons held as slaves within any States, or designated part of the State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, henceforward, and forever free.”

The proclamation itself was not designed as an act of kindness but rather a weapon to be used against our enemies. Since the economy of the 11 rogue states was largely dependent on forced labor, they were willing to do almost anything to legally retain the practice. 

The Emancipation Proclamation also encouraged newly freed slaves to escape from their plantations and join the Union Armies. While their sympathies were clearly with the secessionist states, slave-holding states Kentucky, Missouri. Maryland and Delaware negotiated their grievances with the Union and therefore were permitted to retain their slaves.

As one might imagine, there was enormous confusion among the slaves themselves as there might be among folks reading this story.

The bad guys (the Confederates) lost their slaves, but the good guys (the United States) were permitted to continue to practice slavery. What an odd reward for loyalty.

On one hand, southern slaveholders were determined to maintain control over what they considered their human property, and on the other hand while it was clear that all slaves within the Confederate states had been freed, there was often no place to go.

In most states, slavery was still legal, and freed slaves leaving secessionist states only to find themselves in slavery states must have encountered many obstacles. Clearly the most viable option for male former slaves was to join the Union Army — a primary intention of the Proclamation.

Female slaves were faced with more difficult choices.

The irony of the peculiar status of America’s original sin was not settled for many years. Freedom for non-Confederate-state slaves would later be determined by individual state legislatures and, finally, by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in December 1865, almost three years later.

Finally we get to Juneteenth. In 1863, America was a long way from the instantaneous communication we now enjoy, and it took some time for slaves to hear of their new-found freedom. You can be sure that public officials and slaveholders in the affected states did little to spread the good news.

Texas, being the state farthest from our nation’s capital, was the last to let their slaves know that they were free. In fact, it wasn’t until June 19, 1865, when Gen. Gordon Granger and a contingent of Union troops landed at Galveston, Texas, that residents of our most southernmost state learned that the war had ended and all Confederate slaves were now free.

One of Granger’s early orders read: “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 free laborer.”

Across the nation, this date became known as Juneteenth, and it is celebrated in many places as the final nail in the coffin of slavery.

While Juneteenth is predominantly known as an African-American holiday, several states (including Texas) have recognized June 19 as a state holiday.

Occasionally, attempts are made to have Juneteenth declared a national holiday, but so far none have been successful.

Ken Wibecan is a retired journalist. Once an op-ed and jazz columnist, later an editor of Modern Maturity magazine, these days he and his two dogs enjoy the country life in Peru. He can be reached at