Monday, June 15, 2020


by Susan Zehnder, Education Director
On June 19th in 1865, two months after the last significant battles of the Civil War had ended, the Union General Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in Galveston, Texas. 

They had traveled 460 miles from Mobile, Alabama covering just eight miles a day. The usual mileage for troops of that era ranged from 15-30 miles per day. However, the news they delivered that day was immediately life changing. Word spread quickly that 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 earlier, Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation which had minimal impact on the institution of slavery. 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 and preserve the Union. Not only did no southern states join the Union, the proclamation did not free any enslaved people. It allowed slave states fighting on the side of the Union to retain slaves, hoping these states would not be tempted to switch sides, and it did not require areas held by the Union to free enslaved people. It did allow freed slaves to join the Union army, an army desperately short of soldiers.

In history, the Emancipation Proclamation is considered an important catalyst in changing the US Constitution, and in passing the 13th (1865), 14th (1868), and 15th (1870) Constitutional amendments. In black and white, these 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 Confederate States of America. Soldiers fighting for Texas headed east and few battles were fought on Texas soil. The two years between Lincoln’s proclamation and Granger’s news in 1865 saw little change in the state of slavery for Texas. When the official word arrived in Galveston, it also had restrictions including not permitting formerly enslaved people to “travel on public thoroughfares unless they had passes or permits from their employers.” The realization of the release of 246 years of chains must have been something. Reactions ranged from shock to pure joy, and overwhelmingly, Black people fled without a look back. So people left, many historians have called this “the scatter.” Heading to find family members in neighboring states, or to strike out on their own.

The word Juneteenth comes from the combination of June and nineteenth. It is also sometimes called Freedom Day, Jubilee Day and Cel-Liberation Day. Observed on the 19th of June, it has been celebrated ever since in communities all over the nation. 
Juneteenth festivities, Texas, 1900
Early years were difficult and growing segregation laws prohibited access to public places and parks. In 1870 formerly enslaved people in Houston raised $800 to purchase 10 acres of land they could use. In 1980 Texas was the first state to declare Juneteenth an official state holiday, and in 2004, it was recognized as Juneteenth Freedom Day by New York State, but only as a commemorative day. Over the years the level of celebrations has varied. During the Jim Crow days, many felt there was little to celebrate. Things picked up in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement. Today it has some recognition in most states. It is a day for all to promote and cultivate knowledge and appreciation of African American history and culture through education, prayer, history, and the arts. It is a day for recognizing Black excellence in all forms of expression.

Local celebrations started here in 1993, led by Anthony Fedd. In 1994 Earl Derry took over Elmira-Corning’s NAACP Juneteenth planning, and the event has been held ever since. For many years, celebrations have taken place in Elmira’s Ernie Davis Park and included a central stage, vendors and food. The tradition of barbeque pits and strawberry soda date back over a hundred years. Events include prayers led by Black ministers, patriotic demonstrations, Juneteenth history, and exhibitions by local groups including choral, step and dance teams, poetry readings, drill teams, music, rap groups, and a fashion show by Black designers. The mood is festive, celebratory, and patriotic.
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This year’s local events will be virtual, from June 13-19th. Centering on the theme Cooperation over Competition, events will include daily TV informational spots, and social media activities. Check out the community leaders recorded short messages on history, faith, voting, health, music, Black love, business mentoring and inequities in our society, on the Economic Opportunity Program’s website. On the 19th, ethnic foods will be available from food trucks parked at EOP, 650 Baldwin Street, Elmira, NY.
 Juneteenth statue in Emancipation Park, Houston
It has been 155th years since General Granger delivered the news to Galveston, a city just 50 miles south east of Houston, Texas. Recently, national attention turned to Texas again with the tragic murder of George Floyd. Floyd was buried in Houston, his hometown. Protests, vigils and rallies for justice were held in Houston’s oldest park, Emancipation Park, the one purchased by formerly enslaved people back in 1870.
Juneteenth is an opportunity for all to celebrate Black Lives, African American history and culture, and some of the tremendous contributions to the crazy quilt of American history.

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