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


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