by Susan Zehnder, Education Director
(This is an updated repost of something published last year)
Juneteenth is a celebration and things will be even more festive at this year’s Juneteenth festivals. Not only does it fall on a Saturday, and we are coming out of pandemic restrictions, but days ago it was officially recognized as the country’s 11th Federally observed holiday. It passed with bipartisan support. Because of this, I chose to update a blog I did last year and post this quick recap of the holiday's origins.
The holiday name refers to the day it happened. On June 19th in 1865, two months after the last significant battles of the Civil War ended, Union General Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in Galveston, Texas.
In two months, the men had traveled 460 miles coming from Mobile, Alabama. They covered eight miles a day. Usually, troops covered 15-30 miles per day, so it was a slow journey. The news they brought to Galveston quickly changed lives and history, giving cause for celebration. For two months earlier the Confederate leader of the Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered, the American Civil War was now over, and all enslaved people were to be freed.
Two years before this, Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Under his presidential order, “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are and henceforth shall be free” and the proclamation encouraged all rebellious states to rejoin the Union. Lincoln intended to win the war while preserving the Union. In the end, no southern states joined the Union, and his proclamation did not actually free any enslaved people at the time. It still allowed slave-holding states, fighting on the side of the Union, to retain slaves. It also did not require areas held by the Union to free enslaved people. However, it did allow freed slaves to join the Union army, an army desperately short of soldiers.
The importance of the Emancipation Proclamation is how it became a catalyst in changing the US Constitution. It was instrumental in passing the 13th (1865), 14th (1868), and 15th (1870) Constitutional amendments. These amendments address the abolishment of slavery; the granting of citizenship to former slaves; and prohibition of states from denying citizenship to former slaves.
In 1861, Texas had declared secession from the United States and joined the Rebel cause. Soldiers wanting to fight for Texas, headed east, and almost no battles were fought on Texas soil. The two-year gap between Lincoln’s proclamation and Granger’s delivery of the news in 1865 brought little change to the institution of slavery in Texas. By the time the official word arrived in Galveston, new restrictions had already been put in place. These included forbidding formerly enslaved people to “travel on public thoroughfares unless they had passes or permits from their employers.” Despite these restrictions, and facing possible fines, Black people gathered and celebrated.
Juneteenth is sometimes called Freedom Day, Jubilee Day and Cel-Liberation Day. Since 1865 it has been celebrated in various communities throughout the nation. Now it’s a national holiday.
In Chemung County, Juneteenth celebrations started being observed in 1993, and have been observed ever since. Last year the event was virtual, so this year’s theme, “Devoted to Unity” is all about being a community. To find out more about this year’s event highlights and performers, visit the Juneteenth facebook page. Celebrations will take place in Elmira’s Ernie Davis Park with a central stage for musical acts and performances. There will be vendors and lots of food. Past celebrations have included prayers led by Black ministers, patriotic demonstrations, Juneteenth history, and exhibitions by local groups. This year the event is adding a pop-up vaccination site, something we hope will be gone in the future.
The news that arrived in Galveston more than 155 years ago is part of our nation’s complicated history. Being reminded that the past informs the future can sometimes be worth a second read.