THE HISTORY OF JUNETEENTH
Juneteenth and General Order No. 3, read on June 19, 1865 announcing that all slaves were free, is one of Galveston’s most important historical moments. US President Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. Issued under powers granted to the president “as a fit and necessary war measure”, the proclamation declared, “That on the 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward and forever free…” However, Lincoln’s proclamation would have little impact on Texans at that time due to the small number of Union troops available to enforce it.
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. – General Order No. 3
Two and a half years later, in June of 1865, more than two thousand Federal soldiers of the 13th Army Corps arrived in Galveston and with them Major General Gordon Granger, Commanding Officer, District of Texas. Granger’s men marched through Galveston reading General Order, No. 3 at numerous locations, including their headquarters at the Osterman Building, 1861 Custom House, courthouse, and then the Negro Church on Broadway, as Reedy Chapel-AME Church was referred to then. The order informed all Texans that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves were free.
It was from that moment that Juneteenth would be born. Since then, the annual commemoration has grown from local roots to a national celebration featuring parades, readings, processions, and more. In the late 1970s, the Texas Legislature declared Juneteenth a “holiday of significance […] particularly to the blacks of Texas”. Texas was the first state to establish Juneteenth as a state holiday under legislation introduced by freshman Democratic state representative Al Edwards (Houston). The law passed through the Texas Legislature in 1979 and was officially made a state holiday on January 1, 1980. After Texas recognized the date, many states followed suit. Currently, 47 of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have recognized Juneteenth as either a state holiday or ceremonial holiday, a day of observance.
In 1979, the Galveston Juneteenth Committee under the leadership of former city manager Doug Matthews and Texas Representative Al Edwards initiated an annual Juneteenth Celebration on the lawn of Ashton Villa at 2328 Broadway. The event commemorates the reading of General Order No. 3 through prayer, reflections, and community leadership. In 2006, the Juneteenth Committee with the City of Galveston erected a statue of the reading of the order that remains a permanent reminder to residents and visitors of the June 19, 1865 event. The City of Galveston transferred the building and grounds in November 2018 to Galveston Historical Foundation who preserved and managed the property since 1970.
GENERAL ORDER NUMBER 3
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 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.
CELEBRATIONS, PROCESSIONS, PICNICS, AND PARADES
As African-Americans from Galveston and Texas migrated to other areas of the country, they took Juneteenth with them. Today the nineteenth of June is celebrated in more than 200 cities throughout the United States. In Galveston and elsewhere, Juneteenth is observed with speeches and song, picnics, parades, and exhibits of African-American history and art.
The history of celebration commemorating Juneteenth and General Order No. 3, is significant and is a defining piece of modern commemorations. On January 2, 1866, Flake’s Bulletin, a Galveston newspaper, reported on an Emancipation Celebration.
“The colored people of Galveston celebrated their emancipation from slavery yesterday by a procession. Notwithstanding the storm some eight hundred or a thousand men, women and children took part in the demonstration. The procession was orderly and creditable to those participating in it. A meeting was held in the colored Church, on Broadway [present day Reedy Chapel], at which addresses were delivered by a number of speakers, among whom was Gen. Gregory, Assistant Commissioner of Freedmen. The General gave them a great deal of good, plain advice, which, if they follow, will redown to their well being and prosperity. The Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln was read. The singing, John Brown’s body lies mouldering in the ground, was also a part of the programme. So far as we observed there was no interference nor any improper conduct on the part of spectators.” – Flake’s Bulletin, 2 January 1866.
After some years of reportage of a flagrantly racist nature, the white Galveston newspapers gradually moved to a less-biased accounting of the Emancipation celebrations, and by 1878 an anonymous reporter had this to say of the day’s celebrants:
“The old plantation melodies …were transformed into a new song and the sunshine of the dreams that once dwelt in their hearts burst full and fair upon them as they both felt and realized the fullness of the freedom that is now theirs—not only to enjoy but to perpetuate….The conclusion of the day went out amid the pleasures that always cluster about the ball-room (sic), and if a memory of olden times came back from the ringing shout of the dancers as the ‘break-down’ was getting the benefit of their ‘best licks,’ it is to be hoped that the contrast suggested more of pleasure than regret. The colored people of Galveston certainly deported themselves creditably in celebrating ‘their 4th of July.'” – Flake’s Bulletin, 20 June 1878.
When the above was written, the newspaper was also printing wire reports from across the state devoted to Emancipation celebrations in Brenham, Marlin, Liberty, Bastrop, and elsewhere. African-Americans throughout Texas observed June 19 with parades and picnics, speeches, and dancing. In many communities, groups bought their own land for this and other events, often naming these tracts Emancipation Park.
The days of “monstrous and brilliant” parades in Galveston gave way to more private Juneteenth celebrations in the middle years of the twentieth century, with families gathering for beach parties and cook-outs. Churches observed Emancipation Day with the reverent singing of the song “Lift Every Voice” (the official song of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and the plea to remember the significance of the nineteenth of June and the joy of freedom.
TEXAS HISTORICAL COMMISSION MARKER
In 2014, the Texas Historical Commission placed a subject marker at the corner of 22nd and Strand, near the location of the Osterman Building, where General Granger and his men first read General Order No. 3. The marker reads:
Commemorated annually on June 19th, Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery in the U.S. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln on Sep. 22, 1862, announced, “That on the 1st day of January. A.D. 1863, all person held as slaves within any state…in rebellion against the U.S. shall be then, thenceforward and forever free.” However, it would take the Civil War and passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution to end the brutal institution of African American slavery.
After the Civil War ended in April 1865 most slaves in Texas were still unaware of their freedom. This began to change when Union troops arrived in Galveston. Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, commanding officer, District of Texas, from his headquarters in the Osterman building (Strand and 22nd St.), read ‘General Order No. 3’ on June 19, 1865. The order stated “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.” With this notice, reconstruction era Texas began.
Freed African Americans observed “Emancipation Day,” as it was first known, as early as 1866 in Galveston. As community gatherings grew across Texas, celebrations included parades, prayer, singing and readings of the proclamation. In the mid-20th century, community celebrations gave way to more private commemorations. A re-emergence of public observance helped Juneteenth become a state holiday in 1979. Initially observed in Texas, this landmark event’s legacy is evident today by worldwide commemorations that celebrate freedom and the triumph of the human spirit.
ABOUT GALVESTON HISTORICAL FOUNDATION
GHF was formed as the Galveston Historical Society in 1871 and merged with a new organization formed in 1954 as a non-profit entity devoted to historic preservation and history in Galveston County. Over the last sixty years, GHF has expanded its mission to encompass community redevelopment, historic preservation advocacy, maritime preservation, coastal resiliency and stewardship of historic properties. GHF embraces a broader vision of history and architecture that encompasses advancements in environmental and natural sciences and their intersection with historic buildings and coastal life and conceives of history as an engaging story of individual lives and experiences on Galveston Island from the 19th century to the present day.