It has swept the nation in the past three decades with almost half the states recognizing Juneteenth.
However, the actual importance of June 19, 1865 has not been fully conveyed. And the mythology that goes around it takes what should be a sacred time and makes a mockery of it.
Here’s what happened. Gen. Gordon Granger occupied Galveston, the state capital of Texas, on that date and issued a general order declaring that all slaves were freed.
It was the same order that had been issued in each of the Confederate states as soon as they came under control of the Union Army. It was that military action, not the Emancipation Proclamation, which actually freed the captives.
The mythology says that the blacks celebrated because they didn’t know about the Emancipation Proclamation. Whether those in the square knew or not, it didn’t matter as long as the state was controlled by the Confederate Army.
What they did understand, particularly as they made the date an annual celebration was that June 19, 1865 marked the end of the Civil War, because Texas was the last state to fall, and the actual end of slavery in the Confederate states. The 13th Amendment, passed in February of 1865, ended the practice nationally once ratified by 1866.
The mythology flies in the face of the grassroots communication network represented by the Underground Railroad, as well as the fact that many escapees used Texas and Mexico as a haven; and the reality that American slavery had a very short run in Texas, because slavery had been abolished in Mexico in 1829. Many of the blacks, particularly those who spoke Spanish, had free status.
The mythology ties into the stereotype of African-Americans as pawns in the chessgame of history. In fact, volunteers from Texas joined the U.S. Colored Troops and their regiment won a battle there in 1864. The U.S. Civil War Soldiers Monument in Washington, D.C. and an accompanying National Parks Service web site documents that service. Like the other 250,000 African-Americans who fought for the Union, they took action to end slavery.
The success of their struggle is the important thing to celebrate on Juneteenth. Then, like now, no one is coming to hand us freedom. We’ve got to be on top of developments and seize the opportunities.