June 19 is marked in Texas and 41 other states as the commemoration of the end of slavery. Another "independence day" that grew spontaneously out of an accidental date, and flourished thanks to former slaves.
On June 19, 1865, news of the end of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation finally reached Texas, the westernmost state in the Union at the time.
The Proclamation had come into force on 1 January, 1863, but only applied to to Confederate states which had seceded from the Union over slavery. The war ended in April 1865, but news only arrived at the westernmost point of the union two months later.
General Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, on 19 June, 1865, and read out General Order Number Three:
"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 free laborer."
Each year in Galveston, there is a re-enactment of that historic moment:
At a stroke, the last 250,000 slaves in the U.S.A. were freed. Although some plantation owners managed to keep the news from their slaves until after the cotton harvest was in, many former slaves celebrated the news on the day itself.
"June" and "nineteenth" were shortened into a single term: Juneteenth.
The first official Juneteenth celebration took place one year later, organised and mainly attended by the former slaves themselves. They continued to hold picnics, barbecues and speech-giving ceremonies even as segregationist practices took root in the South. Juneteenth celebrated the liberation of 19 June 1865, but also the ideal of a truly egalitarian U.S.A. where "all men" would be truly "equal", as promised in the Declaration of Independence.
When white authorities refused to allow Juneteenth gatherings on public land, African Americans subscribed to buy land specifically for the celebration, for example the Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas.
The Great Migration
As African Americans migrated north away from Segregation, they took the tradition with them. In recent years, some of the biggest celebrations are in San Francisco, California, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they have an annual Underground Railroad re-enactment. Participants learn about the Railroad, the escape route where anti-slavery activists and former slaves helped slaves leave the southern states and find safety in the northern states or Canada. They spend a night re-living the experience of "passengers" on the Railroad, travelling on foot, navigating by stars and eating wild plants.
Juneteenth became a state holiday in Texas in 1979. It is still celebrated with parades and pageants. Given its Texas roots, barbecues feature largely in Juneteenth celebrations. Traditionally, African Americans dress as smartly as possible for Juneteenth, because slaves were forbidden by law from wearing anything but the poorest clothing. Red food and drinks, in memory of the blood spilt during slavery, are popular, especially strawberry soda water.
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