The Origins and Legacy of Juneteenth

Issue #36

American freedom is not just celebrated in July. Every 19th of June since 1865, Black Americans have celebrated “Juneteenth,” the day enslaved people in Texas were finally declared free people, no longer “masters and slaves” but now “employer and hired labor.” As joyful as this day was for enslaved Americans, the celebration of Juneteenth also symbolizes the ongoing struggle for basic civil rights that people of color in this country have always fought for. The Emancipation Proclamation, after all, was issued in 1863. But it was not until two years later, after the Civil War ended in 1865, that enslaved Texans were informed of it. Juneteenth acknowledges not only the liberation of enslaved Americans, but also the limitations of the American legislative system, especially when it comes to honoring the rights of people of color.


“I have known the name and celebration of Juneteenth since I was knee-high to a duck,” recalled Texas-born Amanda Green in 2020. “We gathered with family and friends to celebrate the honor and dignity of life and liberty. And we celebrated our desire — and that of our ancestors — for the pursuit of happiness.” Texas was the birthplace of the Juneteenth holiday and Amanda Green was a direct descendant of enslaved people who first heard the good news on the first Juneteenth: 19 June 1865.

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Lincoln on 1 January 1863. The Union Army’s victory over the Confederacy at the Battle of Antietam in 1862 had given Lincoln the confidence to become more aggressive in his determination to end slavery. But as important and controversial as the Emancipation Proclamation was at the time, it did not immediately free all enslaved people in the United States. Instead, it declared slavery illegal in the rebelling states. This gave enslaved people there an incentive to fight for the Union.

“...facsimile of the Emancipation Proclamation, reproduced by the United States Sanitary Commission and sold at the Soldiers Home, Chicago, Illinois, to fund the creation of a permanent home for disabled soldiers”.

The Emancipation Proclamation also established the abolition of slavery as a moral imperative for the war itself. Ending slavery was now the reason the Union had to win. European countries like Great Britain and France recognized the Emancipation Proclamation as a sign of which side of the Civil War was worth supporting, and any notions they had previously held of intervening in the war on behalf of the Confederacy were put to rest forever.

Yet, until the Union won the war, the Confederacy would go on trying to retain control of the Black Americans living there. Many of them never heard about the Emancipation Proclamation, or only heard of it through rumors, unsure if it was real. Those who knew it was often attempted to flee to the Union states for their freedom--a dangerous thing to do. Those loyal to the Confederacy did not accept Lincoln as their president, nor the Emancipation Proclamation as a binding document, and they continued to treat enslaved people with the severity they had before the war began.  

“I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper,” Lincoln said when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. “If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it." After the declaration, the freeing of enslaved people became a military objective for the Union. In September 1863 the War Department established the first United States Colored Troops regiments and by the end of the war over 200,000 Black Americans had served in the Union military ranks, many deserting their slave masters and the work of supporting the Confederacy to do so. 

Although defiant of Lincoln’s proclamation, many slaveholders in the Confederacy nevertheless grew nervous, worried about the growing strength of the Union (which had won the Battle of New Orleans in 1862). They considered enslaved people their property and in order to protect that asset, many moved westward to territories far from the influence of Lincoln and the Union Army. Over 150,000 enslaved people were relocated in this attempt to escape justice; as one former enslaved person said, “It looked like everybody in the world was going to Texas.”

Their plan worked, for a while. Far away in Texas the institution of slavery persisted long after January 1863. The Union Army had too sparse a presence in the west to effectively control the region. So it was not untl months after the war ended in April 1863 that Union Major General Gordon Granger traveled to Galveston, Texas to spread the news, not only that the war had ended and the Union had won (the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Army had continued waging war for another month, surrendering only on 2 June 1863), but that slavery was no longer the law of the land. 

Granger delivered the news in General Order #3: 

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, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

For the Black Americans of Galveston, the decree was a moment of jubilation and awe. “The way it was explained to me,’ ” one descendant of the enslaved people present, ”the 19th of June wasn’t the exact day the Negro was freed. But that’s the day they told them that they was free … And my daddy told me that they whooped and hollered and bored holes in trees with augers and stopped it up with [gun] powder and light and that would be their blast for the celebration.”

For other enslaved people in Texas, General Order #3 was no more effective than the Emancipation Proclamation had been two years earlier. Without the Federal Freedmen’s Bureau present to enforce the law and support the freedmen (the Freedmen’s Bureau did not arrive in Galveston until September 1865), many slaveholders went on as usual, opting not to inform their workers of their freedom. As Katie Darling, an enslaved person in the area recalled, she continued working for her mistress as a slave for six more years, and the mistress would “whip me after the war jist like she did ‘fore.”. Some slaveholders decided to wait until after the next cotton harvest to inform their workers of their emancipation. 

By the following year it was clear that the abolition of slavery was here to stay. And on 19 June 1866, formerly enslaved people gathered together in parks, churches, and at outdoor picnics to celebrate what some called Jubilee Day. Wearing their finest clothing in a show of pride and triumph, they came together to celebrate their freedom in many of the same ways White Americans celebrated the 4th of July, with barbecues, group games, singing, prayer, baseball games, and fireworks. 

But even in the twelve months since the General Order, many Southern states had already begun implementing slavery by another name, in the form of racially-based restrictions on travel, employment, and even public gatherings. This was the era of Jim Crow. Some groups of Black Americans pooling their meager funds to purchase their own spots to congregate, some of which remain the sites of Juneteenth celebrations to this day, such as Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia, Texas and Emancipation Park in Houston. While some employers refused to give Black people the day off to celebrate, others were recorded as encouraging the celebration and even donating food and money for the cause.

The Juneteenth tradition spread through the United States as the formerly enslaved people of Texas migrated in search of new opportunities in the decades after the war. During the Jim Crow era of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many of these celebrations were repressed in the South. But after the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, Juneteenth made a comeback. The Juneteenth celebrations that followed the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 marked a resurgence in the celebration around the country. 

First recognized as a state holiday in 1980 by the state of Texas, Juneteenth is gaining stature every year, and legislation to create a federal holiday was first introduced in 1995 and continues to gain support. Today the largest Juneteenth celebration is in Philadelphia, where an annual parade takes place. Others celebrate Juneteenth with family barbecues, church services, and group picnics. 

Amanda Green remembered the joy and hope that Juneteenth celebrations have long provided for her community. It’s an occasion to honor ancestors, acknowledge the struggle of Black Americans for their freedom, and to celebrate the achievements of people once enslaved. “Red, white and blue were the colors of Juneteenth, just like the American flag,” Green explained. “They chose those colors purposefully, as they wanted their lives and ours to be associated with and known as the true Americans that the flag represents.”


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The Reconstruction of America

The Reconstruction Era is a commonly referenced term when speaking to the time period following the Civil War when our nation was going through the process of rebuilding our war-torn and very divided country. Though it is commonly used, many do not understand that it wasn’t just a figurative term, but actually quite literal. This era encompasses two time periods - Presidential Reconstruction, which lasted from 1865 to 1867 under President Andrew Johnson (Lincoln’s successor), and Military Reconstruction, which commenced with the Military Reconstruction Acts, the first of which was passed by Congress on 2 March 1867 and ending in 1877 when the Union troops withdrew from the South.

“Mending the Family Kettle” Political Cartoon, published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 16 June 1866.  The illustration depicts Andrew Johnson holding a leaking kettle, labeled "The Reconstructed South," towards a woman representing liberty and Columbia, carrying a baby representing the newly approved 14th Constitutional Amendment.

The Reconstruction Acts established military rule over the Confederate states, and basically outlined the requirements necessary for them to be readmitted into the Union, which included submitting new state constitutions to Congress for approval, extending voting rights to all men, as well as to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment. These requirements were outlined for the rebel states, with the exception of Tennessee, as it had already rejoined prior to the first enactment in 1867. Though President Johnson vetoed each of the acts, the Republican-majority Congress and Senate were able to override Johnson. Military Reconstruction began by dividing the Southern states into five military districts:

  • Military District 1:  Virginia, commanded by General Schofield

  • Military District 2:  North Carolina and South Carolina, commanded by General Sickles

  • Military District 3:  Alabama, Florida and Georgia, commanded by General Pope

  • Military District 4:  Arkansas and Mississippi, commanded by General Ord

  • Military District 5:  Louisiana and Texas, commanded by General Sheridan

The era of Reconstruction brought with it records which had not previously existed, including those of the records created under the umbrella of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Southern Claims Commision, as well as the Confederate Amnesty Papers, among others. Though short lived, the Freedmen's Bureau left behind some genealogically-rich records, which we discussed in depth in Issue 17 of Without a Trace

The Southern Claims Commission allowed residents of the 12 Southern states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia, who experienced losses due to the rebellion, to file applications for reimbursement with the commission, if they furnished supplies to the Union Army during the course of the war and they were loyal to the Union. Though only few individuals per county qualified for settlement and claims from the 12 Southern states, over 22,000 claims were submitted by Southern Loyalists for property losses amounting to over $60 million, including claims from states outside of the Confederacy.  In all, applications for residents of 24 states, as well as the District of Columbia, are found in the commission records. The records included not only information about the claimants, but also those who came forward to testify for or against them, providing great biographical information about the claimants and their neighbors of all races and classes and some records explain the relationship between the individuals.  Details can encompass everything from names and geographic locations to family Bible records, probate and property inventories, among others.  Records are available through the National Archives in addition to those available online, such as the Approved Claims and the Disallowed and Barred Claims.

Created at the end of the Civil War, the Confederate Amnesty Papers were created after the proclamation by President Johnson on 29 May 1865.  It allowed for any former Confederate who had not previously taken advantage of the amnesty proclamation made by President Abraham Lincoln, to receive amnesty. Individuals seeking amnesty were required to take an oath to defend the Constitution of the Union, as well as to obey all Federal laws and proclamation regarding slavery made during the rebellion. In turn, amnesty was excluded from individuals, except upon special application to the President, who took part in acts against the Union, including voluntary participants in the rebellion who had property valued at more than $20,000, absented themselves from the United States in order to aid in the rebellion, graduated from West Point or Annapolis and served as Confederate officers, were ex-Confederate governors, individuals who engaged in destruction of commerce on the high seas or in raids from Canada, among many other acts deemed dis-loyal to the Union. 

The Reconstruction Era was a time of great change in the United States and riches can be found among the records of a struggling nation seeking unification of a divided people. Houston Hatsfield Holloway, a freedman, aptly wrote of the time, “For we colored people did not know how to be free and the white people did not know how to have a free colored person about them.” 

Through the struggle to form “a more perfect Union,” every citizen of the newly re-United States was in some way affected by the era of Reconstruction. What records might you find to add new insight to your own family history during this time? 

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Helpful Resources

Learn more about researching African-American ancestors with the articles Five Tips for Embarking on African-American Genealogy and Five More Tips for Embarking on African-American Genealogy.


Sources…Duh!!

National Museum of African American History & Culture (http://nmaahc.si.edu : accessed 17 June 2021), “The Historical Legacy of Juneteenth.” 

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., PBS (http://pbs.org : accessed 17 June 2021), “What is Juneteenth?” 

CU Denver News (http://news.ucdenver.edu : accessed 17 June 2021), 8 June 2021,  “Juneteenth History: Why Doesn’t Everyone Know About Texas?” 

Juneteenth (http://juneteenth.com : accessed 17 June 2021), “Homepage.”

Ashley Luthern, Smithsonian Magazine (http://smithsonianmag.com : accessed 17 June 2021), 19 June 2009, “Why Juneteenth Celebrates the New Birth of Freedom: The commemoration of the end of slavery holds special meaning for American nationwide.”  

Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org), "File:Juneteenth Celebration at Emancipation Park, 1800.png," rev. 16:03, 6 October 2020.

National Archives at College Park - Textual Reference (RDT2), digital images, National Archives Catalog (http://catalog.archives.gov : accessed 17 June 2021), textual preservation copy, “Facsimile of the Emancipation Proclamation,” (Washington, DC : United States Sanitary Commission, 1901), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, 1763-2002, ARC Identifier 6923829. 

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 17 June 2021), digital image of illustration in Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, v. 22, no. 559 (1866 June 16), p. 208, “Mending the family kettle," (1866) digital id cph 3g09374 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g09374.

Anchor (http://ncpedia.org : accessed 17 June 2021), “Military Reconstruction.”

Library of Congress (http://loc.gov : accessed 17 June 2021), “Reconstruction and Rights.”

Library of Congress, The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship (http://loc.gov : accessed 17 June 2021), “Reconstruction and Its Aftermath.”

FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org), "Southern Claims Commission," rev. 15:56, 1 March 2021.

FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org), "Confederate Amnesty Records," rev. 14:49, 1  February 2021.


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