Texas Primer: Juneteenth

Texas slaves greeted Emancipation Day with joy; modern reactions are more complex.

No holiday inspired more celebration in the beginning; none inspires more ambivalence today. The first Juneteenth was the long-awaited day of Jubilee, the realization of freedom that generations of slaves had dreamed of. More recently, Juneteenth has become an official holiday in Texas, a state that once sanctioned human bondage. But more and more, Texas blacks are divided over whether June 19 is a day to celebrate or to ignore.

When Union major general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston on June 19, 1865—a full two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation—he announced that all slaves in the rebellious state of Texas were from that moment free. Lincoln’s wartime edict had not had much practical effect in the Confederacy, but Galveston’s black population immediately recognized Granger’s declaration as t real thing. As the news spread throughout the city, slaves dropped whatever they were doing and left to celebrate the first Juneteenth. So widespread was the observance, reported a Galveston newspaper, that “there was a scarcity of black physique, giving the streets quite the appearance of a northern city.”

The scene was often repeated as federal troops moved into East Texas. Descendants of freedmen later recalled that the Jubilee was marked by solemn services of thanksgiving; others told of more exuberant festivities. In Anderson County, for example, freedmen drilled holes in trees, filled them with gunpowder, and lit the fuses to improvise spectacular fireworks.

No one knows when the day came to be called Juneteenth, but black newspapers didn’t use the term before the 1920’s. The day became an unofficial holiday on which blacks were excused from work. Other states had their own emancipation celebrations, often depending upon when local plantations received the liberating news—Florida’s holiday is May 20, Mississippi’s, May 8—but nowhere was emancipation celebrated with as much enthusiasm as in Texas. In East Texas in particular, Juneteenth became the black Fourth of July and was commemorated in similar ways, with family homecomings and covered-dish suppers under shady trees, baseball games between rival towns, speeches, and readings from historic documents. Blacks who emigrated from Texas took Juneteenth with them; it is observed in Oklahoma and Arkansas and as far away as Milwaukee and San Francisco.

As the memory of slavery receded, Juneteenth celebrations took on a new and sadder meaning. The holiday was an emancipation not from slavery but from the barriers of segregation, yet it lasted only one day each year. On Juneteenth the all-white city governments in Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Houston allowed blacks to have access to whites-only parks and zoos. In 1953, after a group of black ministers in Fort Worth protested the obvious inequity, the official Juneteenth observations in that city went into a decline, then stopped altogether in 1961; they were not revived until 1974.

In the fifties and sixties, as the civil rights movement gained strength, Juneteenth became a holiday primarily observed by rural blacks. In the cities it was too strongly associated with segregation and the stereotypes of subjugation. (Whites were always condescending towards Juneteenth: The Handbook of Texas , a leading reference work published in 1952, describes celebrants as spending the day “picnicking and dancing.”)

Juneteenth has enjoyed something of a resurgence in the eighties as it continues to be a mirror for black social and political attitudes. In 1979 black legislators, noting that Texas still observed Confederate Heroes Day as a state holiday, successfully pushed through a similar designation for Juneteenth—over the protests of some prominent blacks. One, former Dallas city council member Juanita Craft, later told the Dallas Morning News , “Dancing up and down the streets, drinking red soda water, eating watermelons…I grew out of that.”

Paradoxically, while official Juneteenth festivals in the cities offer more activities than ever—including such fare as pageants, lectures at colleges, arts celebrations, and the acclaimed Juneteenth Blues Festival in Houston—the holiday is no longer the universal celebration it once was. Among many younger blacks, the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., has surpassed Juneteenth in importance. The day of Jubilee is far behind, and the vigorous achievements of the civil rights movement have more immediate appeal than the events that blacks’ ancestors experienced so long ago.

Tags: THE CULTURE

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