Guest Column

June 5, 2013

Origins of Juneteenth celebration


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.”

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