Juneteenth is a hybrid of the words June and nineteenth. It was first recognized on June 19, 1865. In the weeks following General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, General Gordon Granger and a regiment of Union army soldiers sailed into Galveston, Texas, and issued a freedom proclamation for nearly two hundred thousand slaves. This was the catalyst for a number of celebrations in the state and throughout the southwestern United States. Currently a Texas state holiday, Juneteenth is commemorated all over the country with parades, concerts, and cultural festivities.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the first Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. It was a preliminary document, announcing that emancipation would become effective on January 1, 1863. Enforcement, however, was stalled until the end of the Civil War in April 1865 and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on December 18, 1865. Texans were not notified of these developments and did not learn of their freedom until June 19 of that year. It is generally accepted that plantation owners purposely delayed the news announcing the end of slavery in order to orchestrate one final harvest and planting of the cotton crops.
The initial gatherings were held in rural locations that were not subject to the laws of segregation. Later, as the freedom celebrations became more popular Houston waived its segregation rules for the event. This led to the purchase of 10 acres of land near Houston in 1872. In 1878 a community group was chartered, and they purchased the land that became Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia, near Waco. It soon became the home of the earliest Juneteenth celebrations. The traditions established at this time included a reprieve from work, the donning of elaborate costumes to symbolize freedom from the rags of slavery, barbecuing, and enjoying an elaborate picnic. Contemporary celebrations include prayer services, African art sales, and a variety of musical concerts.
Integration, the Great Depression, and World War II contributed to the decline of Juneteenth emancipation gatherings. In 1979 Houston Representative Al Edwards proposed legislation to make June 19 an official Texas state holiday. The bill became law on January 1, 1980. The renaissance of African American cultural pride and ethnic identification prevalent in the country over the last twenty-five years has helped to resurrect Juneteenth. It is now visible in a variety of places in the United States.
Juneteenth started in Galveston, Texas:
"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."
--Major General Gordon Granger, Galveston, June 19th, 1865
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