FREEDOM DAY: The history of Juneteenth in Texas

2:18 p.m Friday, June 16, 2017 Things to Do
Ricardo Brazziell
Austinites watch performers in the 2016 Juneteenth parade. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 The history of Juneteeth (aka Freedom Day or Emancipation Day) is tied up with Texas history and American history. The story is likely well known to Texans: On June 19, 1865, Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union Army, issues General Order 3 after marching into Galveston. Emancipation arrived two months after the end of the Civil War.

“The people 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 personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, become that between employer and hired labor. The freed are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."

 Over the next several months, word spread to the various now-freed slaves in Texas; celebration of this day became a late 19th century tradition. 

Celebrations went from the personal to the familial to the local. 

According to the Texas State Historical Association, “the first broader celebrations of Juneteenth were used as political rallies and to teach freed African American about their voting rights. Within a short time, however, Juneteenth was marked by festivities throughout the state, some of which were organized by official Juneteenth committees [and involved] public entertainment, picnics, and family reunions have often featured dramatic readings, pageants, parades, barbecues, and ball games.”

The first Austin Juneteenth took place in 1867. In Limestone County, the celebration could last for days and took place over 30 acres, drawing tens of thousands to Mexia.

The celebration of Juneteenth declined during the Great Migration as many African-Americans moved north and fell further still during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. According to the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, “Juneteenth received another strong resurgence through Poor Peoples March to Washington D.C.. Rev Ralph Abernathy's call for people of all races, creeds, economic levels and professions to come to Washington to show support for the poor. Many of these attendees returned home and initiated Juneteenth celebrations in areas previously absent of such activity.” 

But in the late ‘70s, focus on the holiday returned. The Texas Legislature made Juneteenth a state holiday in 1979 and state sponsored Juneteenth events started in 1980.

Outside of Texas, awareness of and celebration of Juneteenth has spread over the past 30 or so years. 

The National Juneteenth Observance Foundation traces the contemporary Juneteenth movement to 1994, when leaders from across the country gathered in New Orleans to work for greater national recognition of Juneteenth. 

Today, Juneteenth celebrations take place across the country; forty-five states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation to officially recognize Juneteenth.

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