Wittingly or not, the president did history and the nation a favor when he scheduled a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for June 19, and then rescheduled it for Saturday after criticism that today, June 19, is also Juneteenth, an observance recognized by 47 states, including Oklahoma and Colorado. It stems from the Civil war and the Emancipation Proclamation.
President Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation freeing slaves in the states in rebellion on Sept. 22, 1862. It was formally issued and took effect on Jan. 1, 1863. The war ground on through siege after battle and an astounding loss of life. The proclamation would not really take hold until Lee surrendered his Confederate army at Appomattox, on April 9, 1865 – and even then, not everywhere.
There were about 5,000 slaves in the province of Texas when it broke away from Mexico, in 1836. A decade later, when it was annexed by the U.S., there were 30,000. In 1860, the year before Texas seceded from the Union, there were 182,566, composing 30% of the population. Texas seceded to protect the capital in those human beings. The war mostly bypassed the Lone Star state, and so slaveholders from the Southeast escaped there, with their slaves.
By 1865, there were an estimated 250,000 African Americans enslaved in Texas.
In late May, the last major rebel command, the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi, which included Texas, surrendered at Galveston; its commander, Edmund Kirby Smith, hightailed it to Mexico. On June 18, 2,000 federal troops arrived at Galveston Island to occupy Texas. Gen. Gordon Granger, a West Point graduate from Upstate New York who had distinguished himself with his quick thinking and resolve at the Battle of Chickamauga, was at their head.
The next day, Granger appeared at the Ashton Villa in downtown Galveston. For the duration of the war, this handsome Victorian brick home had been requisitioned as a Confederate army headquarters but for a spell when it fell into Union hands in 1862 and then was retaken by the Confederates after the Battle of Galveston at the beginning of 1863. Now it was in Union hands again. Granger stepped out on the second-floor balcony and read aloud General Order No. 3:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” It added, “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.”
So Juneteenth marked the formal end of slavery in Texas. The Great Migration brought about 1.6 million African Americans from the rural South to the urban Northeast between 1916 and 1940. A second wave, after the Great Depression, brought at least 5 million people to the North and West, including African Americans who dispersed from Texas and brought Juneteenth with them to celebrate emancipation.
Otha Rice, an African American born in Texas in 1915, made his way from Cleburne, Texas, to Denver, where he owned and operated a jazz and blues club, a bar, a restaurant and a hotel. On June 19, 1953, Rice imported Juneteenth with a party at his Five Points restaurant, Rice’s Tap Room and Oven, featuring music, “soul food,” and red Kool-Aid. In 2004, the Colorado Legislature formally recognized Juneteenth. In 2017, Durango held its first Juneteenth celebration.
The first Juneteenth acquired its significance over time, after Reconstruction was virtually aborted and then some of its promise was redeemed a century later by protesters in the Civil Rights movement, which we could call the Second Reconstruction. The moment we are in now, let us hope, is like a Third Reconstruction – which should make June 19 more meaningful than it ever has been before, and right on time.