Free at Last: Remembering History Forgotten (Juneteenth/Freedom Day)

This blog post was written by Poage’s undergraduate student assistant Kayla Thompson.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in January 1863, Texas was a little late receiving the news. It was not until Union General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 that he was able to deliver the message that the slaves were free. Granger read to the people of Texas General Order Number Three which stated, “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 hired laborer.”

This news shook the people of Galveston as former slaves and former masters wrestled with their new relationship as “employer” and “hired laborer.” From that day forward, June 19th was celebrated, marking the moment when the last enslaved peoples were told of their freedom. This date was coined Juneteenth, becoming the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. On this day, family members gathered together, praying and reassuring each other about what was to come. Juneteenth continues to be highly revered in Texas. Many former slaves, and over time their descendants, have made an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston to relive this momentous occasion — their liberation.

Former Representative Chet Edwards speaks with Cleburne residents at a Juneteenth celebration.

Today, Juneteenth is celebrated through a variety of activities including rodeos, fishing, barbecuing, and baseball. There are even national organizations that were created to promote knowledge and appreciation of African American history and culture; Juneteenth encourages continuous self-development and respect for all cultures. Currently, Juneteenth is only a day of recognition, but Opal Lee, a 93-year-old Texas native, tried to change this. In 2016, she started her “Opal Walks 2 DC” trek to Washington D.C. from Fort Worth, Texas. Her goal was to meet with President Barack Obama and get Juneteenth declared a national holiday. Although her efforts have yet to produce any fruit, Ms. Opal Lee will be commemorated in Fort Worth’s Annual Juneteenth Celebration in 2020. She will be leading the 2.5-mile walk to symbolize the years it took for the enslaved in Texas to know they were free. The hope is to garner 100,000 signatures in support of making Juneteenth a National Day of Observance.

To quote the words of Frederick Douglass from his speech “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?” “I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?…”

Former Representative Chet Edwards attends a Juneteenth celebration in 2005, standing in front of a painting presumably of Martin Luther King, Jr.

With Douglass’s words in mind, the fight to make Juneteenth a national holiday continues. Everyone was not free on the Fourth of July; we must never forget that. Juneteenth recognizes the enslaved who were last to hear of their freedom. On this day, we celebrate the freedom that was finally bestowed upon all Americans, taking pride in African American history that will never be forgotten.

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