The Royal BBQ, Juneteenth 2021, Photo Courtesy of @PhillyCreate
The Royal BBQ, Juneteenth 2021, Photo Courtesy of @PhillyCreate

Juneteenth is the official commemoration of the end of slavery. But the story of how it came to be – by way of Texas of all places – is quite interesting. Although, President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law in 1863, and the Civil War had ended by 1865 with the Confederacy’s back broken, slavery still persisted throughout the land. Union troops literally had to travel to all the southern and western outposts and hamlets throughout the newly United States and declare – at gunpoint, under the authority of the federal government – that the institution of slavery was to be no more. The liberation of American slaves from bondage was, as critical race theory teaches, a much more complicated process than our history books readily relay.

Texas, which formally seceded from the Union on March 2, 1861, was the seventh state in the Confederacy. Of course, Confederate states did not believe that the freedoms granted in the Declaration of Independence extended to African-Americans. A slave, for legal purposes at the time, was three-fifths of a white voter. Juneteenth, or Emancipation Day, celebrates a particular moment in time, namely — June 19, 1865. The Lone Star state did not formally surrender to the Union until June 2, 1865. But slavery continued for the state’s 225,000 African-Americans as if nothing had changed from June 2 to June 19. No one, apparently, got the memo. A few days after the surrender of Texas, on Juneteenth, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. U.S. General Gordon Granger enforced General Order Number 3, announcing that the peculiar institution of “master” and “slave,” so prevalent throughout the Southern states, was null and void. “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” he announced.

Juneteenth band, Photo by Grace Murray Stephenson of celebrations in Eastwoods Park, Austin, 1900.

It was, to be sure, a momentous announcement. Granger, who had only been in command of the Texas theater for nine days, spent the next six weeks after the announcement travelling to the interior of the state, spreading the news. We know from the collected slave narratives of Texas that the news was met with joyful displays. We also know from those collected narratives that the first few annual celebrations of Juneteenth were used as political rallies to teach freed slaves about their rights. ”Lift Every Voice and Sing” opened the early Juneteenth celebrations, and oftentimes still does now. As the years went on, the celebration evolved into traditions, including: dramatic readings and pageants (like Miss Juneteenth), a blues festival and a cuisine specific to the holiday. The barbecue grill or pit for communal eating is at the center of the remembrance and red velvet cake, red-colored soda and strawberry pie are also staples.

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