During the summer of 1865, slaves across the State of Texas remained unaware of President Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The 16th President had put his pen to the historic document on January 1, 1863, two and a half years prior.
Southern slave owners throughout the Confederacy ignored the Chief Executive’s declaration, which stated that slaves in “rebellious states” should be free and proclaimed “liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Northern abolitionists rejoiced, handing out leaflets stating the newfound freedom that would come to millions.
And yet, the proclamation served as only the first step in liberating the many that would not experience their emancipation for some time to come.
In towns like Galveston, Texas, a coastal community in a remote corner of the conquered Confederacy, slaves were busy toiling away. The days were long and the weather humid. Because of its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, the smuggling of slaves was made easy. The future of freedom was a far away thought and the New Year’s Day announcement of 1863 was an unknown happening.
Freed slave and activist Frederick Douglas wrote about the dehumanizing effect of slavery in his biographical narrative. He vividly described the tone of the songs that were sung by slaves.
“The hearing of these wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness,” Douglass explained. “If anyone wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd’s plantation, and, on allowance-day, place himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul.”
Slave owners manifested their control of human property by giving slaves only the bare minimum to survive. A monthly allowance of corn, pickled pork and herrings was given to the slaves, just enough to keep the workers alive. It was the White man’s weapon of control.
But a new day was on the horizon. The message of hope and independence was arriving in the form of two thousand Union soldiers. Slaves were finally notified of President Lincoln’s fateful action on June 19, 1865, when the Union took control of Galveston. Many suspect that southern slave owners were aware of the Emancipation Proclamation well before the summer of 1865.
The message shared was titled General Orders, Number 3, and in part, read as follows:
“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.”
The freed residents of Galveston, Texas soon began an annual celebration to commemorate June 19, known as Juneteenth. It was the slave man’s Independence Day with all the familiar celebrations including church picnics and barbecues.
Today, Juneteenth is observed in communities across the United States. While it is the oldest known celebration honoring the end of slavery, its awareness has paralleled the Emancipation Proclamation’s long journey to freedom.
It wasn’t until 1980 that Texas, becoming the first state to do so, declared Juneteenth as a state holiday. In 1996, legislation was introduced in the U.S. Congress to recognize Juneteenth Independence Day. In 2018, Apple added to its operating systems Juneteenth as an official US holiday.
The work continues in spreading the message of freedom and liberty to all corners of the world. On this June 19, take a moment to recognize that for many in this country the wait for freedom has been longer, much longer than it should have ever been.