It was on this day, June 19, 1865 — two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation and months after the end of the Civil War — that word finally reached the last of the enslaved people that “all slaves are free.” Union General Gordon Granger read these words from the balcony of the former Confederate Army headquarters in Galveston, Texas, 80 miles west of the Louisiana line.
There are several theories as to the delay that left slaves in Texas toiling under the lash for so much longer than they should have. One theory is that a messenger had been killed on the way to read the Proclamation. Another is that slave owners purposely withheld the news (which would have been all too easy in the days before the technology we now take for granted).
In the end, it took 2,000 union troops to capture the state to enforce the law. Only then could General Gordon read the Proclamation stating that the enslaved people were now to be employees rather than property. The reactions among the newly freed people ranged from shock to jubilation. Some stayed to see what employment would mean. Others left the plantations immediately and set out to find family members spread out over the region.
Slavery was quickly replaced with sharecropping and a Jim Crow caste system that would hold formerly enslaved people and their descendants in the grip of a brutal new social order which millions would ultimately flee.
Here in this photo, survivors of slavery soberly observe Juneteenth in their hats, canes and bonnets in Austin, TX, 1900. In the early years, the newly freed people and their descendants took pains to dress up for Juneteenth, as laws had forbidden slaves to do so in certain jurisdictions, even in the rare instances when owners would have been so inclined to provide them with decent clothing.
Juneteenth has been a state holiday in Texas since 1980, and has long been celebrated in California, where many Texans journeyed during the Great Migration. Now, a total of 42 states and the District of Columbia recognize it as a state holiday or special day of observance. Celebrations now often include parades, storytelling, barbecue and red soda pop, prayer and recognition of the elders. The building from which General Granger read the Proclamation all those years late is now a historic landmark.
In honor of the last enslaved Americans to be set free…..
— The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration
From the cover of the Dec. 12, 2010, New York Times Book Review