June 19th is perhaps an unusual day to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States. It is not the day the Emancipation Proclamation was issued- September 22nd- or the day it took effect- January 1st- or the day that the 13th Amendment was ratified- December 18th. Rather, June 19th, 1865 was the day that General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and issued General Order No. 3, abolishing slavery in the final holdout of the Confederate States of America.
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.
Slave owners from all over the rebellious states had fled to Texas, carrying more than thousands of slaves with them, in order to attempt to escape advancing federal troops. June 19th, therefore, marks the effective end of slavery in the South (slavery remained in Kentucky and Delaware, border states that had not attempted to secede, but was well on its way to being abolished via the 13th Amendment later that year).
The original celebration of Juneteenth was an organic affair. The date was commemorated annually by freed slaves in Texas, who gathered principally in churches to celebrate their release from bondage- often referred to in biblical terms as “the Jubilee,” referencing the day proclaimed by Mosaic Law in which all debts are forgiven and all servants freed, and the land is allowed to rest for a year. These celebrations focused on faith, family, and gratitude for the nation that had helped to free them, and consisted of singing Black hymns and spirituals, gathering for a community picnic, and putting on patriotic displays- often including singing and the giving of speeches.
The celebration of Juneteenth spread slowly through African American communities through the years after emancipation, although it was somewhat suppressed in the South during the Jim Crow period, where local governments were often hostile to both the commemoration of the end of the Confederacy and the use of public space by black Americans. However, as the Civil Rights Movement picked up steam and the struggle for racial equality became a more salient political issue, the celebration of Juneteenth spread rapidly. Black Americans began to use the holiday as both a reflection of the progress made in the past by their ancestors rising up from their recently discarded chains and also a potential mirror to the future, with the progress that was yet to come. Coming together as a community served to provide the strength necessary to pursue political equality in places often viciously hostile to them. As in the past, churches again often served as the center of the celebrations, supplying an enduring reminder that the justice of God must ultimately prevail over the oppression of man.
Today, Juneteenth is often accompanied by celebrations and commemorations of African American history. The holiday offers an important opportunity to continue this venerable and worthy tradition of celebrating our nation’s history and strengthening our faith and communities to seek a more just and righteous society. The United States is far from being a perfect country with a perfect past- its history, like that of every nation, is checkered with the sins of fallen and imperfect man. But it is a nation founded on a glorious ideal, the Christian ideal that every man is created equal before God, alike in human dignity and eternal worth. The freeing of the slaves was a great step forward in recognizing and fulfilling that ideal. Certainly much remains to be done in the future; there are injustices that remain unaddressed, as well as vices and errors that are unworthy of a free people. The celebration of Juneteenth can serve as a sterling reminder of the importance of faith and community as we reflect and seek to understand and address these issues and build a country worthy of the motto, One Nation Under God.
Written by: Joseph Addington
Opinion Editor at the Cougar Chronicle
The opinions in this article are those of the author.
The Cougar Chronicle is an independent student-run newspaper and is not affiliated with Brigham Young University or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.