One hundred fifty-one years ago today, a warship landed in the harbor of Galveston, Texas. Union general Gordon Granger was on board, along with about two thousand Union soldiers.
Later that day, Granger stood on the balcony of Ashton Villa — Galveston’s most luxurious mansion and a onetime Confederate military headquarters, built by slaves just five years earlier. He announced the dawn of a new era, reading from General Order 3, a document declaring the end of the Civil War and reasserting the power of the Federal government over the soon-to-be reconstructed South.
But Granger’s most important message was directed not to Galveston’s cotton planters or shipping magnates, but to their slaves:
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…
The crowd was jubilant. Many of the assembled spectators were black Texans who had been deceived about the war’s progress by planters hoping to maintain control over their captive workforce for one last cotton harvest.
Two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery had finally come to an end in Texas. That day — June 19, 1865 — would come to be celebrated by black Americans all over the country, who remember Juneteenth as the anniversary of their historic triumph over the planter class.
It should be a national holiday.
Slavers Can’t Hide
As antislavery sentiment grew in the North, many Southern planters sought increasingly remote territories in which to establish plantations. Many planters set their sights on Texas, which they imagined to be further outside the Federal government’s reach than the plantation states of the southeast.
A pro-slavery insurrection against Mexico established the Texas Republic in 1835, and Southern elites seized the opportunity to add a vast new slave territory to the union, pressuring the Federal government into annexing the territory in 1845.
Once Texas became a state, its enslaved population skyrocketed as planters relocated to the region. Just five years after its annexation, the enslaved population had jumped from 11,000 in 1840 to more than 58,000 in 1850.
This number only continued to grow as the war drew more near. On the eve of the Civil War, black slaves made up more than 30 percent of the Texas population. A quarter of white Texans owned slaves.
Planters flocked to Texas in even greater numbers after the fighting began, bringing their slaves with them. By war’s end in 1865 there were as many as a quarter million slaves in the state. About one thousand of them lived in Galveston, where they worked in the service of wealthy homeowners or as dockhands at the port.
Narratives by former slaves demonstrate the brutality of life on Texas plantations — and the outrageous cruelty of the Texas planters.
Armstead Barrett, who was enslaved on a plantation close to Huntsville, described being treated like livestock, working long hours in the Texas heat only to be inspected by a doctor in the evening, “like fat beef.”
“Most of the time we all went naked,” he recalled. “Just have on one shirt or no shirt at all.”
Barrett also recalled the chaos in the months before General Granger’s arrival, when rumors of the Civil War’s end had begun to circulate among slaves and their overseers, and plantations began to slip out of their owners’ control.
I know when peace was declared they [the slaves] were all shoutin’. One woman was hollerin’ and a white man with a high-steppin’ horse rode close to her, and I saw him get out and open his knife and cut her wide across the stomach. Then he put his hat inside his shirt and rode off like lightnin’. The woman was put in a wagon and I never heard more ’bout her.
But sometimes the tables were turned. Barrett also recalls the decapitation of one particularly abusive overseer by two slaves he tormented, who then left his severed head in their master’s field as a warning to all their oppressors.
When Union troops arrived in Galveston bearing news of General Order 3, the embattled slaves were confirmed as the victors in this bitter conflict over their futures.
They were free to make their own way.
A People On the Move
General Granger’s announcement included a line advising the freed slaves “to remain quietly in their homes and work for wages.” But many former slaves — recognizing the repression and destitution they would face in postbellum Texas — chose to leave, abandoning their plantations to travel for the first time as free people.
The mass exodus of freed slaves from Texas and other Southern states would only gain momentum over the next few decades, eventually culminating in the Great Migration of the twentieth century, during which as many as 6 million black Americans relocated to the North and West.
The Juneteenth Day celebration traveled with them.
Today, Juneteenth is celebrated all over the country, with cities as distant from Texas as Portland, Maine and Anchorage, Alaska hosting outdoor celebrations featuring Texan barbeque and strawberry soft drinks.
One of the largest Juneteenth Day celebrations outside of Texas takes place in San Francisco. According to local lore, community leader and Texas transplant Dr. Wesley Johnson inaugurated the tradition in 1951 by donning a Stetson hat and riding a white horse down Fillmore Street.
Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Tulsa are also home to especially strong Juneteenth traditions, joining communities all over the country in celebrating the holiday with parades and street festivals.
But despite these widespread celebrations — not to mention the monumental historical importance of June 19, 1865 — Juneteenth Day still isn’t a national holiday.
A Day Free From Work
Early Juneteenth celebrations were often disrupted by gangs of white supremacists, who objected to poor black laborers — many of whom were still tied to the land as sharecroppers — excusing themselves from a day of work to celebrate their liberation.
In Texas, the years following General Granger’s announcement were characterized by a violent counterrevolution — between 1865 and 1868, more than four hundred freedmen were murdered by white settlers, and a delegate to the all-white constitutional convention in 1866 characterized “the permanent preservation of the white race” as “the paramount object of the people of Texas.”
Some municipalities even banned the holiday altogether, prohibiting black citizens from congregating in public places like parks. Most Juneteenth Day celebrations took place secretly in fields far outside of town or in the privacy of black churches.
But the celebration endured.
In 1980, Texas lawmakers voted to officially designate June 19 a state holiday. Today, forty-five other states have similar laws on the books, recognizing Juneteenth as a day of observance, if not a bona fide holiday.
But the Federal government still hasn’t established Juneteenth Day as a national day of celebration, despite a longstanding campaign advocating that status. Such an act is long overdue.
Still, black Americans all over the country will come together today to mark the occasion. Some, like Paul Herring of Flint Michigan, note that the federal government seems more willing to acknowledge a day commemorating black tragedy — the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr — than a day celebrating black freedom.
”When I think of Martin, I can’t help but see the dogs and the sticks and the little girls in the church,” he told the New York Times in 2004. ”But when I think of Juneteenth, I see an old codger kicking up his heels and running down the road to tell everyone the happy news.”
”This is our day to be happy,” he said. ”I’m glad as hell that the US got its freedom on July Fourth, but were my ancestors free that day? I don’t think so.”
The abolitionist triumph over the planter class stands among the world’s most significant victories against oppression.
Today, we celebrate the end of slavery in America and remember that, through struggle, a better world is possible.