The truth about Juneteenth
Juneteenth, widely celebrated throughout the United States, is now a commemorative holiday in 31 states. In 2009 the U.S. Senate passed a resolution apologizing for slavery and the long century of segregation and discrimination that followed its end. This, for some, long-awaited, and for others, disappointing, resolution appears to have been deliberately timed to pass on the eve of Juneteenth. It is unsurprising given the popular history of Juneteenth. And it is also troubling.
Juneteenth has in popular renderings come to be understood as the date Union Gen. Gordon Granger, arriving in Galveston on June 19, 1865, brought the news of emancipation and set Texas slaves free. From a strictly historical point of view one might think January 1, 1863, the date the Emancipation Proclamation was announced, or December 6, 1865, the date the 13th Amendment was ratified, would be more appropriate dates to commemorate.
Today, Juneteenth is celebrated as something even grander, a “holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States” or as the state of Virginia’s ‘Juneteenth State Holiday Observance Resolution of 2007,’ put it, Juneteenth represents the day Gordon notified “the last enslaved Americans of their new status almost two and one-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.” Other state, senate and congressional resolutions and media accounts all offer up similar narratives. Strictly speaking, Juneteenth does not represent any of these things.
There are several problems with how the story is told. It is doubtful that the slaves gathered in Galveston who heard the proclamation were as lacking in knowledge of events as the popular narrative would have us believe. This would not have been the first they had heard of the Emancipation Proclamation or the first time they had heard that the war had officially ended. Moreover, it is a narrative that installs Gen. Gordon as the hero of emancipation in Texas, thus effectively erasing the story of black people’s own contributions to their freedom and their political consciousness which is, perhaps, the more significant story.
Texas represented the western-most edge of the Confederacy but it was not a sealed-off state. In fact, by the end of the war, it was home to thousands of slaves whose masters had refugeed them to Texas to prevent their escape to Union lines. Some 150,000 slaves were taken to Texas after Union forces captured Vicksburg. These slaves would have brought news of the war, how the Union armies were doing, and especially of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Enslaved men confiscated from their masters by the Confederate army to be put to military labor also would have been important links to the outside world. Furthermore, some slaves from Texas had joined the Union army. Clearly they knew about the Proclamation. And surely, by June 19, 1865, word would have seeped in about the defeat of Robert E. Lee’s army even as Confederate resistance continued in Texas.
What Granger’s proclamation mainly tells us is just how provisional freedom remained after the conclusion of the war. The promises of the Emancipation Proclamation were not only delayed in the state of Texas. Indeed, freedom was not guaranteed until the 13th Amendment passed, and even then, freedom proved to be provisional.
Thavolia Glymph is a professor of history and African and African American Studies at Duke University, specializing in Southern History. Her most recently published work is Out Of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), co-winner of the 2009 Philip Taft Book Prize.