Understanding Juneteenth: Starting Point

The original organized celebrations of freedom in Texas occurred on January 1, 1866. A variety of events were held in towns, statewide. Examples: Freedmen in Galveston, Texas held a program titled, “Emancipation Celebration by Colored Persons”; freedmen in Huntsville, Texas held a parade; etc. These ‘first celebrations’ commemorated the day President Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863).

Six months later – June 19, 1866 – Galveston’s freedmen were first to hold a second round of celebrations. Those celebrations honored the day when the United States military began enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas (June 19, 1865). Initially, June 19 was dubbed “Freedom Day”. Years later, it acquired the name, Juneteenth.

Second emancipation celebrations occurred around the state, but on different dates. Each community commemorated the date when emancipation materialized in their location. Example: Houston’s enslaved Africans were emancipated on June 20th. Therefore, Houston’s 1866 celebration occurred on June 20th.

Possibly the following year (1867), all Texas celebrations transpired on June 19th. That probability must forever remain a supposition because no records from the 1800’s definitively clarify when statewide celebrations merged onto a singular day. Only after that occurred did June 19th become known as Juneteenth. The earliest documented use of the word in surviving newspapers appears in the June 19, 1891 edition of the Brenham Weekly Banner (Brenham, Texas).

Numerous memories of emancipation recorded by freedmen refer to being emancipated on June 19th. Those recordings were made decades after emancipation. Their descriptions cannot be questioned, but the date is what they were later told.

This brow-raising fact is corroborated by military and newspaper records from 1865. Essentially, there was nothing for enslaved people outside of Galveston County to celebrate on June 19, 1865 because distribution of General Granger’s “General Order No. 3” outside of Galveston did not begin until June 20, 1865.

Since its beginning, the popularity of Juneteenth has periodically waxed and waned. To secure its longevity and perhaps secure its significance, in 1880, African American State Representative Robert J. Evans submitted a bill to the Texas Legislature proposing creation of a state holiday honoring emancipation on June 19th. That effort failed, but 99 years later, a similar bill submitted by State Representative Al Edwards was approved, creating Texas Emancipation Day. Between 1980 and 2020, 46 additional states and the District of Columbia approved legislation recognizing Juneteenth in a variety of forms. Ironically, of the 48 legislative acknowledgements (as of this posting), Texas has the only legislation that does not include the word “Juneteenth”.

As Juneteenth’s popularity spread, so did misinformation about its origin. For multiple reasons, the holiday’s purpose differs, primarily based on geographic location. Texans consider the holiday a celebration of emancipation in Texas. Celebrants in other states celebrate that emancipation occurred anywhere, whenever.

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