A Celebration of Freedom
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the ending of slavery. It was on June 19, 1865 that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that all slaves were now free. This was two and and a half years after President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which had become official January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. With the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger's regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.
One of General Granger's first orders was to read to the people of Texas, General Order Number 3 which began most significantly with:
"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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer."
The reactions to this profound news ranged from pure shock to immediate jubilation. While many lingered to learn of this new employer to employee relationship, many left before these offers were completely off the lips of the former masters - attesting to the varying conditions on the plantations and the realization of freedom. Even with nowhere to go, many felt that leaving the plantation would be their first grasp of freedom. North was a logical destination and for many it represented true freedom, while the desire to reach family members in neighboring states drove some into Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Settling into these new areas as free men and women brought on new realities and the challenges of establishing a heretofore nonexistent status for black people in America.
The celebration of June 19th was coined "Juneteenth" and grew with more participation from descendants. The Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.
P O Box 1015
Bastrop, TX 78602
Juneteenth Festivities and Food
A range of activities were provided to entertain the masses, many of which continue in tradition today. Rodeos, fishing, barbecuing and baseball are just a few of the typical Juneteenth activities you may witness today. Juneteenth almost always focused on education and self-improvement. Thus often guest speakers are brought in and the elders are called upon to recount the events of the past. Prayer services were also a major part of theses celebrations.
Certain foods became popular and subsequently synonymous with Juneteenth celebrations such as strawberry soda-pop. More traditional and just as popular was the barbecuing, through which Juneteenth participants could share in the spirit and aromas that their ancestors - the newly emancipated African Americans, would have experience during their ceremonies. Hence, the barbecue pit is often established as the center of attention at Juneteenth celebrations. Food was abundant because everyone prepared a special dish. Meats such as lamb, pork and beef which not available everyday were brought on this special occasion. A true Juneteenth celebration left visitors well satisfied and with enough conversation to last until the next year.
In the early years, little interest existed outside the African American community in participation in the celebrations. Most of the festivities found themselves out in rural areas around rivers and creeks that could provide for additional activities such as fishing, horseback riding and a big meal. Often the church grounds were the site for such activities. Eventually, as African Americans became land owners, land was donated and dedicated for these festivities. One of the earliest documented land purchases in the name of Juneteenth was organized by Rev. Jack Yates. This fundraising effort yielded $1,000 and the purchase of Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas. In Mexia, the local Juneteenth organization purchased Booker T. Washington Park, which had become the Juneteenth celebration site in 1898.
For decades these annual celebrations flourished, growing continuously with each passing year. In Booker T. Washington Park, as many as 20,000 African Americans once flowed through during the course of a week, making the celebration one of the largest in Texas.
Juneteenth Celebrations Decline
Economic and cultural forces provided for a decline in Juneteenth activities and participants beginning in the early 1900's. Classroom and textbook education in lieu of traditional home and family-taught practices stifled the interest of the youth due to less emphasis and detail on the activities of former slaves. Classroom text books proclaimed Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 as the date signaling the ending of slavery - and little or nothing on the impact of General Granger's arrival on June 19th.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 60's yielded both positive and negative results for Juneteenth celebrations. While it pulled many of the African American youth away and into the struggle for racial equality, many linked these struggles to the historical struggles of their ancestors. This was evidenced by student demonstrators involved in the Atlanta civil rights campaign in the early 1960's. Again in 1968, Juneteenth received another stronge resurgence through Poor Peoples March to Washington D. C. Rev. Ralph Abernathy's call for people of all races, creeds, economic levels and professions to come to Washington to show support for the poor. Many of these attendees returned home and initiated Juneteenth celebrations in areas previously absent of such activity. In fact, two of the largest Juneteenth celebrations founded after this March are now held in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.
Texas Blazes the Trail
On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator. The successful passage of this bill marked Juneteenth as the first emancipation celebration granted official state recognition. Representative Edwards has since actively sought to spread the observance of Juneteenth all across America.
Juneteenth in Modern Times
Throughout the 80's and 90's Juneteenth continued to enjoy a growing and health interest from communities and organizations throughout the country. Institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Henry Ford Museum and others began sponsoring Juneteenth-centered activities. In recent years, a number of National Juneteenth Organizations have arisen to take their place alongside older organizations - all with the mission to promote and cultivate knowledge and appreciation of African American history and culture.
Juneteenth today, celebrates African American freedom while encouraging self-development and respect for all cultures. As it takes on a more national and even global perspective, the events of 1865 in Texas are not forgotten, for all of the roots tie back to this fertile
soil from which a national day of pride is growing. The future of Juneteenth looks bright as the number of cities and states come board and form local committees and organizations to coordinate the activities.
The 2013 Bastrop Juneteenth Committee members sat down and talked with Mrs. Zenobia Robinson recently and she told us of the times in the early 1930's when the Bastrop Celebrations were held on the Mayfest Hill (Bastrop State Park). The men would barbeque the meats and the ladies would bring the side dishes and everyone pray together and the festivities would begin. It was a time of joy and remembered life experiences. The older adults would share the history with the young folk and that is what that Committee had as its focus - SHARE THE HISTORY.
Juneteenth was always the time for family reunions and church gatherings and the rodeos at Mr. Thorne's Arena. We want to thank all of those who in the 1980's revived the celebrations. The list includes T. C. Franklin, Zenobia Robinson, A. J Hyder, Cladie Johnson-Haywood, Elroy Williams, Dock Jackson, Joel Reed, Brenda Jones, T. C. Clemons, Bill and Alcie Peterson and so many more. Juneteenth will continue to be a time of history, family celebration and the love that allows us to share the story of "how we got over" by Standing on the Shoulders of our Ancestors!
Tell the History Pass the Torch Live the Legacy!!