The greatest Texas export of the late twentieth century isn’t Dell computers, Willie Nelson’s music, or fajitas. It’s the celebration of Juneteenth. Once a rural folk holiday specific to the state, Juneteenth—shorthand for “June nineteenth,” the date in 1865 that African Americans in Texas learned of their emancipation from slavery—has become an international phenomenon, thanks to a catchy name and the boosterism of expatriate Texans. In hundreds of cities across the nation—and even a few other countries—June 19 is embraced with music, picnics, and parades. The Smithsonian Institution first commemorated Juneteenth ten years ago. Twelve states have passed or are considering legislation to make Juneteenth an official holiday—which Texas did first, in 1979—and activists are petitioning President George W. Bush to make it a federally recognized day as well. The Civil War had been over for two months when 1,800 U.S. troops landed in Galveston in June 1865 and placed the city under martial law. Agog at the sea of blue-clad soldiers, the defeated Confederates and their black servants gathered to hear General Gordon Granger read military orders declaring “absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.” The whites in the crowd showed little or no reaction; after all, they had known about Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation for two and a half years, since the president had issued it on January 1, 1863. But the black listeners, from whom the news had long been withheld, were jubilant: “We all walked down the road singing and shouting to beat the band,” recalled one Texas freedwoman, Molly Harrell, in The Slave Narratives of Texas, a book based on a thirties-era federal oral-history project. Said another, Lou Smith: “I ran off and hid in the plum orchard and said over ‘n’ over, ‘I’se free, I’se free; I ain’t never going back to Miss Jo.’” Many freed slaves immediately left home, in what became known as “the scatter,” to find long-lost family members or to settle in the friendlier North.
But the glee quickly faded as most black Texans realized that, essentially, they were still enslaved. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote that his people were free but “without roofs to cover them, or bread to eat, or land to cultivate.” In the first chaotic months, the government agency charged with establishing a social structure for the former slaves, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedman’s Bureau, for short), began to set up jobs, schools, and even—as early as 1867—an organized Juneteenth party in