Tuesday, June 20, 2006

History of Juneteenth

Juneteenth is Ourstory!What is Juneteenth? Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the ending of slavery. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that all slaves were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation - which had become official January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger's regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.

Later attempts to explain this two and a half year delay in the receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years. Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another, is that the news was deliberately withheld by the slave masters to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another, is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All or neither could be true. For whatever the reason, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory.


Having grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I knew nothing of this history until the arrival of southern homefront workers who migrated from Texas during World War II. I'm sure that many know nothing about it, even now. Just one of the ways that our collective memories of the past -- as represented in history books -- has failed to truly educate us in ways that might illustrate the heroism of ordinary black people who have remained the conscience of the nation and the carriers of the American Dream -- even when we were denied the realization of it.

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