Celebrating Juneteenth in Texas History (progress & B.S.)
The fact that the United States does not have a national holiday formally dedicated to the celebration of slavery's abolition is both incredible and entirely in line with the racist foundations that we've seen play out since the country's beginnings. Still, much progress has been made toward recognizing Juneteenth (June 19th - aka Emancipation Day / AKA The Black 4th of July) at the Federal level, with at least 45 states and the District of Columbia having passed some form of legislation recognizing the day. With Juneteenth 2021 fast approaching it's fascinating to take a look at two documents that help to paint a picture of both the continual advancement and struggle of Black Americans from Emancipation to now.
We celebrate June 19th due to the arrival of Union troops in Galveston, TX on that date in 1865 and the reading out of General Order No. 3 by Gen. Gordon Granger which announced the end of slavery to the people of Texas. Galveston was part of the far Western theater of the Civil War, a significant distance away from the heaviest fighting in the Deep South. In the last part of the conflict as the Union army had made deeper and deeper advances into rebel territory many slaveholders had fled to Texas with their "property" in the hopes of being able to hold out away from the reach of Union forces. There were approximately 250,000 slaves in Texas when Gen. Granger arrived and though his June 19th announcement would be commemorated with annual gatherings and celebrations beginning the very next year it's instructive to look at the actual language of his paragraph-long order to get a sense of just how much of a struggle the newly emancipated Black Americans were facing. It reads:
“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.”
In translation it essentially it said: "Slavery's done...officially...but your best bet is to stay where you are on the land of the people who've brutalized you for generations and hopefully work out some kind of deal to start being paid for the work you've been doing forever...but with no back pay, land allowances, or reconciliation of any kind. And oh yeah, don't come hanging around our army camps hoping for assistance, you will get none. Get a job."
So yes, we can see from the very beginning of emancipation (actual emancipation, not Lincoln's 1863's Emancipation Proclamation which, while not unimportant, freed virtually no slaves) that it would always be an uphill push and pull to see any advancement in America.
Though Juneteenth had been commemorated in Texas (and beyond) since 1866 it wasn't until freshman state congressman Al Edwards cut deals and called in favors all over the legislature that it was approved in 1979 as an official holiday in the state of its origin. At the time there was little belief in the possibility of getting such a holiday recognized, and most Black legislators in the state were more concerned with advocating for a national holiday on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday (MLK day wasn't made an optional state holiday in TX until 1987 and not recognized as official until 1991). Edwards ended up prevailing, but a look at the actual bill that he submitted is quite interesting and another perfect example of Black American advancement in lockstep with struggle & white-supremacist B.S.
As written, the bill simply copies the legislation detailing Texas State holidays that already existed at the time, and added in the proposed language regarding Juneteenth, underlined, at the appropriate spots. It's startling to read because the last update to state holiday legislation that had been made prior to the Juneteenth proposal in 1979 was a law from 1973 that had eliminated the celebration of the birthday of Jefferson Davis (the President of the Confederate States of America) and instead combined it with the longstanding celebration of the birthday of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee for a catchall Texas State Holiday called "Confederate Heroes Day" on January 19...which is (shockingly and not shockingly) *still* a recognized holiday in the state.
Compiled for the June 21 newsletter of the Central Brooklyn Food Co-op.