AOF Activities & Events
Juneteenth, an unofficial American secular holiday but official in Texas, commemorates a major milestone: slavery's end in the United States. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that the war was over and the enslaved were now free. This was two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation (official on Jan 1, 1863). The Proclamation had had little impact in Texas due to a lack of federal troops to enforce it - but with General Granger's arrival, Union forces were finally strong enough to overcome resistance.
Why a two and a half year delay in the recognition of Emanicipation? Variant stories try to explain this. One concerns a messenger murdered on his way to Texas with the news. Another is that enslavers deliberately supressed the news to maintain the labor force on their plantations. Another, that federal troops actually waited for slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas. For some, very likely, President Lincoln's authority over the rebel states was still in question. Whatever the truth of it, conditions in Texas sadly remained status quo well beyond what was statutory.
On arrival, General Granger’s first order of business was to proclaim General Order Number 3, which began as follows:
"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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer."
Reactions ranged from shock to jubilation. While many lingered to learn of the new employer-to-employee relationship, others left before offers were completely off the lips of their former 'masters' - attesting to the varying conditions on the plantations and the realization of freedom. Even with nowhere to go, they felt that leaving the plantation would be their first breath of freedom. Moving North was logical; for many it represented true freedom, while the desire to reach family members in neighboring states drove some into Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Settling into these new areas as free men and women brought on new realities and the challenges of establishing a heretofore non-existent status for black people in America. Recounting the memories of that great day in June of 1865 and its festivities would serve as motivation as well as a release from the growing pressures encountered in their new territories.
The celebration of June 19th, coined "Juneteenth" but also called "Freedom Day," "Liberation Day" and "Jubilee Day," began the next year and grew yearly with participation from abolitionists and family of former slaves. The Juneteenth celebration became a time to reassure each other, to gather with family, and to hear speakers recount the abuses of the past. Decades after Emancipation, Juneteenth continued to be revered in Texas with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on the date.
Modern American secularists can mark this day by educating themselves about this stain on our history. A good starting point is The Middle Passage by Dr. John Henrick Clarke.