Juneteenth: The Emancipation of Texas Slaves

By Curtis Harris

As a nation we can celebrate January 1, 1863, as the day Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect and declared freedom for 3.5 million of America’s slaves held in rebellious areas. December 6, 1865 is an occasion worthy of celebration, too. That is the day Georgia ratified the 13th Amendment thereby making this measure of abolition a part of our Constitution. These twin federal death knells for slavery are only part of the story, though. Emancipation had been an ongoing process in the United States since the Declaration of Independence.

Pennsylvania passed its Gradual Abolition Act in 1780 while the Revolutionary War was still raging. Under the Articles of Confederation, slavery was banned from the Northwest Territory. New York celebrated the final emancipation of slaves within its borders on July 4, 1827. During the Civil War, Missouri and Maryland abolished slavery via state action.

In Texas, the celebration of emancipation takes place on June 19th.

Far removed from most of the major action of the Civil War, Texas and its population were little affected by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation during the war. In a curious coincidence, one of the few pitched battles of the war in Texas took place on January 1, 1863.

While Abraham Lincoln was signing the Emancipation Proclamation, the prized port of Galveston was the scene of a desperate engagement in the war. The day ended with rebel victory thus ending federal occupation of the city that had been ongoing since October of 1862.

However, with the surrender of the major rebel armies in the eastern theaters of the war in the spring of 1865, federal forces once again landed in Galveston and finally re-established constitutional authority in the Lone Star State on June 18th, 1865.

The next day, Major-General Gordon Granger stepped out on the balcony of the Ashton Villa, a home that served as the headquarters for the rebel army in the region during the war, and read General Orders No. 3:

Gordon Granger

Major-General Gordon Granger, Library of Congress (1860s)

“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.”

Ever since this momentous declaration, June 19th has been celebrated as Emancipation Day in Texas with the unique and distinctive moniker of “Juneteenth”.

Along with readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, Juneteenth, like any good summer holiday, also serves as a time for barbecue and a day spent with friends and family. Dancing, singing, poetry recitations and even beauty pageants are held as the day has grown into a wider celebration of black culture in Texas. After over a century of observance by the state’s black population, the Texas legislature officially made Juneteenth a state holiday in 1979 and remains one of the many reminders of emancipation and freedom in the United States.

Mr. Harris is a Historical Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage.
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