Forever free

It had taken three years for the news to travel from Washington to Texas, but it had finally arrived.

President Abraham Lincoln had called his Cabinet together in July 1862 and informed them that he intended to issue an Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all then-enslaved persons in the Confederate states to be “thenceforward and forever free.” The Proclamation was issued in September just after the Union victory at the battle of Antietam, and took effect to much fanfare in the north on January 1, 1863.

But in those areas of the south still controlled by Confederate forces, the news did not spread so quickly. As Union armies marched through the south, they carried copies of the Proclamation with them, announcing the joyous news at every stop, months or sometimes years after its issue by the President. With Grant’s victory at Appomattox, and the cascading effect of surrenders of other rebel armies throughout the south, Union forces began arriving to restore United States authority in many parts of the seceded states.

Their June 19, 1865, arrival in Galveston, Texas, along with the glorious news of Emancipation set off a celebration which today we know as Juneteenth.

Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Texas with 1800 Union Army troops, including a handful of Illinois soldiers, to take control of the area and bring the news of Emancipation.

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” Granger’s General Order #3 began.

The precise number of enslaved persons who learned of their freedom that day is unknown. There had been little fighting in Texas during the war, perched as it was on the distant end of the Confederacy. Slaveholders from other states had retreated there as Union armies advanced southward. It is estimated that as many as 250,000 people in Texas might have first learned of their freedom when Granger’s troops arrived.

The news was greeted with jubilation, but also with a somber recognition of the difficult road ahead. The days and years to come would include desperate searches for separated family members, extremely harsh economic conditions and a century of Jim Crow and segregation. The challenges were many, but the spirit was strong. It was a spirit which drew inspiration from the remembrance of that day of liberation.

An annual commemoration of the date of freedom began almost from the start. Emancipation had occurred on paper on January 1, 1863. The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery had passed the U.S. House on January 31, 1865, (with Illinois becoming the first state to ratify the amendment the very next day) and had been certified as having become law on December 6, 1865. But the date of June 19 held a special significance.

With the arrival of the news of Emancipation in the last holdout Confederate territory on that date, the last enslaved persons were freed, and slavery was ended everywhere on American soil. It was just two weeks shy of 89 years since the Declaration of Independence, but at long last the institution of slavery in America was no more. A 2011 Smithsonian article called the date, “arguably the most significant event in American history after independence itself – the eradication of slavery.”

Emancipation Day in Richmond, Virginia, 1905.
In the years after the war, Juneteenth celebrations were common in Texas. Initially they were celebrated under an assortment of names, including “Emancipation Day” and “Jubilee Day.” They included prayer services, inspirational speeches, food and music. One early tradition involved the wearing of new clothes as a symbol of newfound freedom.

In the Jim Crow south, authorities would sometimes seek to suppress the celebrations, driving them out of public parks or other grounds. Undeterred, an African-American church in Houston took up a collection in 1872 to acquire a plot of land to become a home for their festivities. They pooled their resources to come up with $1000 for the purchase. In honor of the occasion, they named the grounds Emancipation Park. Continuing to hold the gatherings against the backdrop of the efforts to stop them made the celebrations a source of strength against the injustices of the era. By the 1890s some of the largest gatherings would include as many as 30,000 people.

But with the passage of time, the celebrations grew smaller, as those with first-hand memories of June 19, 1865, passed away. By the coming of the Great Depression, the holiday had faded from memory in some locations. With many African-Americans moving from the rural south to the industrial cities of the north, communities fractured and celebrations grew less frequent.

But Juneteenth saw a resurgence with the energy of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The tradition was rekindled after the 1968 Poor Peoples March on Washington, in which Rev. Ralph Abernathy had designated June 19 as “Solidarity Day of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign.” The state where it all began, Texas, became the first to declare Juneteenth an official holiday in 1979 after large celebrations were held in Houston and Fort Worth.

A decade and a half later, the Modern Juneteenth Movement was born out of a gathering in a Louisiana church in 1994 led by Reverend John Mosley and the New Orleans Juneteenth Freedom Celebration. Formal organizing committees, like the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation were formed to educate Americans about the significance of the date and to revitalize the traditional celebration, as well as “to promote, support and demonstrate Biblical reconciliation and healing from the legacy of enslavement through the observance of Juneteenth in America.”

Over the years since, the commemoration has become a national event, including a National Day of Reconciliation and Healing from the Legacy of Enslavement held at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. The 150th anniversary of Juneteenth in 2015 was recognized throughout the United States and all around the world. Today 47 U.S. states commemorate Juneteenth in some way.

General Order No. 3, June 19, 1865.
That includes here in Illinois, where Juneteenth has long been celebrated throughout the state. In recent years the event has marked more than the date of Emancipation. For example, a celebration in Chicago last year also took time to specially honor African-American veterans alongside the commemoration of Emancipation.

“Everything else about our culture is built basically upon that,” Vietnam veteran Virgil Mathis, who was an attendee of the 2019 celebration in Chicago’s Garfield Park, told ABC 7. “Even though we have a history before that, but that’s a reference point.”

Last year’s gathering in Peoria was about remembering the past while celebrating service and family in the present. Pastor Marvin Hightower, Peoria NAACP President, told WEEK that the event in that city would be about bringing the community together, “Peoria has a long rich history of community,” he said. “The family has gotten lost in the shuffle, be it through circumstances or situations. So we wanted to bring the old-style family reunion.”

“We get together, eat some food, share some laughs, memories and leave away from here encouraged and inspired,” Hightower concluded.

Juneteenth was formally designated in Illinois in 2003. That year, members of the 93rd General Assembly unanimously passed legislation declaring the third Saturday in June as Juneteenth National Freedom Day. The legislation commemorates “the abolition of slavery throughout the United States and its territories in 1865,” and goes on to urge Illinoisans to, “reflect on the suffering endured by early African-Americans and to celebrate the unique freedom and equality enjoyed by all State citizens today.”