“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.” —General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865
Today marks the first time America will celebrate Juneteenth as a federal holiday after 156 years of it being a staple in the African-American community.
Known by several names, such as Emancipation Day, Black Independence Day, or Jubilee Day, this African-American holiday celebrates the day when after two and a half years, enslaved people in Texas were told of their freedom on June 19, 1865, by Maj. General Gordon Granger and Union troops.
When Granger arrived, he read out General Order No. 3, which informed the enslaved people that American Chattel Slavery “would no longer be tolerated and that all [enslaved people] were now free and would henceforth be treated as hired workers if they chose to remain on the plantations.” At that moment, over 250,000 African people were freed from bondage.
Yet, their White slave owners did not let them go so easily. Some owners even made a point of not telling the people until after harvest time was over. And if an African person tried to leave before that time, they’d be attacked and killed.
To combat this, Union soldiers and other government representatives had to intercede on the African people’s behalf since Confederate states, like Texas, refused to let go of the system that upheld American Chattel Slavery…kind of like how it is today…I digress, though.
It should be clear that the African people did not always have the freedom to be free, let alone celebrate Juneteenth in public as they saw fit, and had to be creative in how they rejoiced.
In 2016, Opal Lee, an 89-years-old Texas Civil Rights leader, decided to create a petition in tandem with walking the 1,600 miles from her home in Texas to Washington, D.C. to see if she could get then president, Barack Obama, to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. She ultimately logged 300 miles on foot for her cause but is now known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.”
For some African-Americans, Juneteenth is celebrated by prayer, dancing, parades, musical performances, rodeos, communal feasts, and a bunch of other ways. At Juneteenth’s core, though, is a celebration to “commemorate the hardships endured by [our] ancestors.”
If you want to learn more about the holiday or just read some excellent African-American fiction, read the following books.
To Teach Kids
If you have small children, broaching the topic of American Chattel Slavery can be challenging. Using Folktales and simple chapter books can help ease the children into the topic and break down these horrific times into manageable bites for their little minds.
These tales include stories of Bruh Rabbit, Bruh Alligator, Little 8 John, and the reimagines our people having secret magic that kept them strong as they labored while being enslaved. Hamilton draws on Black spirituals and Diasporic folklore as well in this book.
Pulitzer Prize winner and historian, Annette Gordon-Reed, does an excellent job breaking down the history of Juneteenth in On Juneteenth, a short nonfiction work. Piecing together American history, her family’s history, and episodic moments from her life, Gordon-Reed tackles the question we all have of “why now?”
If you are unclear where to start in learning about this holiday as an adult, get this book by Gordon-Reed as your starting point.
My audiobook copy of “On Juneteenth” was provided by Libro.fm.
Written over the span of 40 years, Ralph Ellison’s second novel, Juneteenth, or as it’s known in its longer and completed form, Three Days Before the Shooting, is the story of a racially ambiguous man, Bliss, who was raised by an African-American Baptist preacher named Alonzo Hickman. In his adult years, Bliss has chosen to pass as a White man and ends up becoming a race-baiting U.S. Senator known as Adam Sunraider (think Candace Owens, but worse). All is going smoothly until Hickman and his congregation shows up, and Bliss has to face the music of his life.
In this novel, Ellison evokes the African-American experience and crafts a tell that calls the pain of enslavement and the Jim Crow Era, the joy of the Harlem Renaissance, and everything in between.
You can read either the whole manuscript with Three Days Before the Shooting (over 1100 pages) or only read the Juneteenth edited version (400 pages) that was pieced together by Ellison’s longtime friend and biographer, John F. Callahan.
Narratives of Enslaved People
In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, and interviewed Cudjo Lewis,the last known African to be transported on the Middle Passage. This work became Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.”
Lewis’ story cover captures what the voyage of the Middle Passage felt like and how Lewis survived being enslaved. Reading Lewis’ story gives a modern person the perspective of what emancipated would have meant to an African person who survived being enslaved. It is another short read, but it packs a punch.
Prairie View A & M University also has first-hand accounts of emancipated Africans who speak to their feelings of hearing the jubilant news on June 19, 1865, that you can read through in their archives.
If you wanna get technical…
Written by another Pulitzer Prize winner, Caste, tackles the world that the emancipated Africans were sent into and how that world got crafted into the America we now inhabit.
Wilkerson gets to the core of the White owners’ frustration and anger at having to let their “property” go in the aftermath of the American Civil War as she dissects the American caste system. While the players have changed, the fact still rings true that America is about the “haves” and “haves nots.” With this in mind, Wilkerson notes in her book that, “The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it, and which do not.”
Let me know down below if you’ve ever read any of these books or if they’re on your TBR!