On January 1, 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation declared slavery illegal in the Confederate slave holding states that had rebelled against the country. This act of perceivable graciousness wasn’t done out of concern for the 4 million enslaved African Americans in the South, it was merely a war tactic to weaken the economy of the southern states. This executive order meant that if a slave could escape to any state that wasn’t under Confederate control, they were free. Texas, a Confederate state, was unique in the fact that its location was the furthest West of the rebel states, and because of this there were no battles fought in their during the war. The isolation of the state also attracted many slaveholders from the South East who’d fled to the isolated state, bringing with them hundreds of thousands of slaves.
It would be 2.5 years before the African American slaves in Texas knew anything about the Emancipation Proclamation, many of the slave owners withheld this information from them.
On April 9, 1865 General Robert E. Lee surrendered, the Confederacy had been defeated. However it wouldn’t be until June 18, 1865 that the Union troops arrived in the city of Galveston to occupy the state. On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger stood on the balcony of Ashton Villa and read aloud General Order No. 3, declaring anyone that had been enslaved FREE!!!
“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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly 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.”
The African American men and women rejoiced and celebrated at their new status. By the next year, the freedmen and women organized the first Juneteenth Day. However, due to the legal segregation that barred them from using many of the city parks, they purchased land across Texas, one of the parks was Emancipation Park in Houston.
With slavery officially over, African Americans faced new forms of oppression socially, economically, and legally, and a result of this was the declining celebration of Juneteenth Day.. The Second Great Migration led many Black Texans to not only the Northern states, but also further out West in search of work. More than 5 million black people left Texas between 1940 and 1970.
A reemergence of recognizing the holiday occurred in the 1980’s within the African American community. The significance and history of the day traveled with those that had left the state and their descendants, allowing for celebrations across the country. Today, 46 of the 50 U.S. states recognize Juneteenth as a day of observance.
Unfortunately, Juneteenth still isn’t a federal holiday.
Photos taken by me at Ashton Villa in 2018: