Juneteenth: The Celebration of a New Freedom in America

Today’s post was written by Billy R. Glasco, Jr., archivist at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.

To understand Juneteenth’s significance, one must understand how geography, military occupation, timing, and the resilience of a proud people solidified June 19, 1865 as the date that symbolizes freedom for African Americans. The National Archives is the home of General Order No. 3 (NAID 182778372), the document whose date of issue gave this celebration and holiday its name.

When the Emancipation Proclamation, the executive order that ended slavery in states in rebellion againist the Union, was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862, the Union Army had begun to heavily occupy several Confederate states. By this time, Texas was still geographically isolated in contrast to other Confederate states from military campaigns and Union occupation.  These factors were ideal for slaveholders who began to move to Texas from other southern states to avoid the emancipation order.  Being secluded from the war and having a low presence of Union troops also made it easier for slaveholders to conceal the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation from some 250,000 enslaved people.

mini card of the painting Waiting for the Hour, which shows Black people gathered in a torch lit room waiting for midnight
Waiting for the Hour, Carte-devisite from William Tolman Carlton (NMAAHC)

Beginning on January 1, 1863, Union commanders in areas throughout the South began to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.  Celebrations and traditions such as Watch Night, an observance still practiced by churches with predominantly African American congregations today, began from the initial enactment of the executive order, however celebrations were scarce due to the nation being immersed in the Civil War.

General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865.  Eight weeks after Lee’s surrender, the last official surrender of a Confederate general was by General Edmund Kirby, commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department in Galveston, Texas on June 2, 1865, officially ending the last battle of the Civil War.

see quoted text
General Order No. 3, June 19, 1865 (NAID 182778372)

On the morning of June 19, 1865 Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas with General Order No. 3 (NAID 182778372).  Digitally available on the National Archives Catalog and located in Record Group 393: Records of U.S Army Continental Commands, General Orders Issued, 6/1865-7/1865 (NAID 6082382), General Order No. 3 stated:

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.

There had been several general orders carried out throughout the South prior to General Order No. 3, but what makes this announcement different is that there were no distractions.  There were no more battles.  The Confederacy had been defeated and the war was over.  Although Granger implemented the order over two months after the end of the war, when the new freedmen and freedwomen in Galveston heard the proclamation aloud, they knew freedom was finally a reality.

Granger and his 2,000 troops continued to circulate and reprint General Order No. 3 throughout the Texas Gulf Coast and East Texas where the most concentrated population (forty percent) of Blacks were at the end of the Civil War.  Although General Order No. 3 was met with reluctance, most slaveholders began to release their former slaves during the latter part of 1865.  After receiving the news of their freedom, new freed Blacks began migrating to major cities in Texas and established “Freedman’s Towns”. Areas such as Freedman’s Town in Houston’s Fourth Ward (NAID 40972374), Tenth Street Freedman’s Town in Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood, Ellis Alley on San Antonio’s Near East Side, and Wheatville in Austin became principal sites for Juneteenth celebrations and the foundation for African American culture in Texas.  

One year after the announcement of General Order No. 3, on June 19, 1866, freedmen in Galveston organized the first annual celebration of emancipation in the state of Texas.  Jubilee Day, as it was called, was not only a day of celebration, but venues used for Jubilee Day activities were also sites used to inform the Black community on voting instructions.

Jack Yates wearing a dark button up shirt and blazer
Jack Yates (African American Library at The Gregory School, Houston Public Library)

In 1872, Houstonians Jack Yates, Richard Allen, Richard Brock and Elias Dibble, leaders of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church (NAID 40972418) and Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church (NAID 137891765), purchased 10 acres of land in Houston’s Third Ward that would be solely used to celebrate the end of slavery in Texas.  The park would become known as Emancipation Park, the oldest park in the city of Houston.  Also at this time, Jubilee Day celebrations in Texas would begin to be known as Emancipation Day or Juneteenth celebrations.

A group photograph of thirty-one people at a Juneteenth Celebration in Emancipation Park in Houston's Fourth Ward.  Reverend Jack Yates is pictured on the left and Sallie Yates is pictured in the center toward the front in a black outfit
Juneteenth Celebration at Emancipation Park, ca. 1880s (African American Library at The Gregory School, Houston Public Library)

At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, Texas was not exempt from the resurgence of white supremacy in the South and the enactment of Jim Crow laws designed to disenfranchise Black people.  Many African Americans began to leave Texas during The Great Migration, and move to states in the northern and western United States to find better employment opportunities and escape racial injustice. Although people carried their traditions with them, factors such as family distance and working in factories made it difficult to continue Juneteenth celebrations. 

In an effort to revive Juneteenth celebrations, the Texas State Fair served as a site that would account for thousands of people coming to celebrate Juneteenth in Dallas during the mid 20th century.   In 1938, Governor James V. Allred issued a proclamation naming June 20, 1938 Emancipation Day.

Juneteenth celebrations saw another  resurgence during the 1950s and 1960s, as Black people began to relate the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement to struggles of emancipation.  In the early 1970s, Juneteenth celebrations began to emerge in major cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and Minneapolis.  

Juneteenth Celebration Parade with Packard car in foreground in Houston, Texas in 5th Ward (Lyons Avenue) or 4th Ward (West Dallas)
Juneteenth Celebration Parade (African American Library at The Gregory School, Houston Public Library)

In 1979, the Texas State Legislature passed a bill recognizing Juneteenth as a state holiday and officially making Juneteenth a holiday on January 1, 1980.  In 2020, state governors of Virginia, New York, and New Jersey signed executive orders recognizing Juneteenth as a paid day of leave for state employees.

When General Order No. 3 was announced in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, it captured a rare moment that still resonates with the African American community.  A moment free from distractions, obscurity, and conflict.  A moment fate could only create to prevail.  A moment to celebrate a new freedom in America.

I would like to express my sincere thanks to the African American Library at the Gregory School (Houston Public Library), the Austin History Center (Austin Public Library), and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture for making the following records available for research.

One thought on “Juneteenth: The Celebration of a New Freedom in America

  1. At least one black union regiment (The 62d I believe) was stationed in Texas at the time. What role did they play leading up to Juneteenth and afterward?

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