Hallelujah, we’re free! Following shock and disbelief as news of their liberation was finally realized, shouts of rejoicing rang through the air. And so began Juneteenth, initially called Emancipation Day by the newly freed slaves.
It wasn’t until 1865, three years after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, that slaves in Galveston, Texas, heard the news of their freedom. Reasons for the delay vary with each account, but one story speaks of a messenger murdered on his way to Texas with news of emancipation, while another declared that federal troops awaited a last cotton harvest before enforcing the proclamation.
When Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union Army took command of the Military District of Texas on June 19, 1865, one of his first actions was to read General Orders No. 3, announcing the end of slavery to the citizens of the city. Following the initial rejoicing and jubilation, many set out in search of family members, journeyed to the North or moved to neighboring states. Others chose to remain on the plantations to work for wages. But lacking skills and education, the economics of freedom soon became clear because most owned only the clothing on their backs. They had been promised 40 acres and a mule, but this promise soon rang hollow.
Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1865. Its purpose was to provide assistance to those left homeless by the Civil War, supervise affairs related to newly freed slaves in the Southern states and administer all lands abandoned by Confederates or confiscated from them during the war. Unfortunately, due to inadequate funds and personnel, the bureau was short-lived (1865 to 1872), but succeeded in building schools and hospitals while providing food, housing and medical care for former slaves and other displaced people.
Despite the hardships, former slaves wished to celebrate their freedom with a day of thanksgiving, prayer and rejoicing. Those activities set the stage for present-day gatherings and included parades, games for the children, food, music, dancing and gospel performances. There were prayers, speeches by ministers and local dignitaries, stories relating family history by former slaves and reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Because laws in many areas prohibited or limited fancy dressing by the slaves, getting dressed up was a major feature of the celebrations. The new clothes symbolized that the rags of slavery had been discarded. Karen Riles, history specialist at the Austin Public Library, relates an 1879 entry from the diary of Austin store owner George Brush: “Fine morning. This is Emancipation Day. The colored(s) are all dressed up. They march up the avenue going to the barbecue.”
The preparation of a special dish for the day was another hallmark of freedom. Meats had not been plentiful for the slaves, thus lamb, pork and beef now occupied a prominent place on the menu, often in the form of a succulent barbecue, washed down with strawberry soda pop.
Juneteenth celebrations spread and flourished throughout the country as blacks moved from the South, taking with them the traditions and holidays of their birth. Activities vary markedly with each site, although most have a parade, music, dancing and a barbecue, in addition to a variety of foods. However, concerns regarding education, health, self-improvement and political awareness have increasingly assumed greater roles as the festivals gained in popularity.
Pre-festival events have expanded considerably as various community groups bring educational, social and cultural programs to the celebration. If you haven’t yet attended the “Git On Da Bus” tour with the local griots, Tradition Keepers, you’ve missed a superb event.
President Marcus Brown reminds us that “the festival has succeeded due to a corps of energetic, community-minded volunteers. Without them, we’d be hard-pressed to continue to make this the third-largest Juneteenth celebration in the country.” And he notes, “While we celebrate with songs, prayer, food, dances, a parade and a diverse African marketplace, we must not forget that Juneteenth is a festival commemorating freedom, and that the fight for freedom is far from over.”
As we approach our emancipation day, let us be thankful that Juneteenth is alive, well and thriving; a living monument to the struggles of African-American people. It is an absolute given that “we shall overcome.”
Georgia Burnette is a retired nurse educator/administrator. She writes about African-Americans in Buffalo and Western New York.