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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The First Juneteenth, June 19, 1865

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Today in 1865, slavery in the United States and her territories came to an end. Because of this, today is remembered as Juneteenth in parts of the US and in several other nations.

You may be under the impression that the institution of slavery was ended in the United States on January 1st, 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In fact, the proclamation did not immediately free a single slave and was very limited in scope. The proclamation declared that all slaves being held in rebellious states were free. This did not include neutral border states, such as Kentucky, where slavery remained legal for the time being. It also did not include those parts of the Confederacy then under Union control. The people it did free were still under the boot of Confederate masters. To them, at that time, it was not worth the paper on which it was printed in terms of their freedom.

But the Emancipation Proclamation was not just a document granting certain slaves their freedom. It was a declaration that the Civil War, now in its third terrible year, meant freedom for millions of slaves as long as the Union held the nation together. As the Union Army on the ground and the Union Navy at sea pushed into the deep South, they brought news of emancipation with them.

Of course, states still controlled by the Confederacy simply ignored Lincoln's edict and continued the institution. Such was the case with Texas, the westernmost state to secede from the Union. Slaveholders there continued to work their captives as if nothing had changed, for in their lives little differed compared to the years before the conflict. Most of the Civil War fighting took place outside of the state; Texas served mainly as a connection to Mexico through which munitions could pass, but this artery was severed early in the war when the Union gained control of the Mississippi River, essentially cutting the Confederacy in half.

And so it was not until two months after the end of hostilities that slaves in Texas gained their freedom. On June 19th, 1865, Union troops under the command of Major General Gordon Granger came ashore in Galveston, Texas. That day, Granger performed a public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation and declared that all slaves in the state, estimated at more than 250,000 people, were free.

The first anniversary of the events of June 19th saw a celebration in Galveston and other communities in Texas. As the years progressed, June 19th morphed into Juneteenth, the word we use today to denote the celebration. At first, many towns relegated the festivities to the edge of town, but this changed as former slaves pooled their money and bought tracts of land within town limits whose sole purpose was to host the Juneteenth holiday.

Interest in the holiday waxed and waned over the course of the 20th century and declined sharply during the civil rights struggles of the 1960's. The mid-1970's saw the beginning of a resurgence of Juneteenth as Americans of African descent gained a renewed interest in their heritage. In 1979, Juneteenth became a state holiday in Texas.

Today, fourteen states recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday. The celebration of the holiday varies from place to place and includes Americans of all racial backgrounds. Most of the time, the day is marked with family gatherings, picnics and public speakers who remind celebrants of the true meaning of the day, in the hope that the spirit of the holiday will never be forgotten.

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