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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Why I Remember Juneteenth

By Eddie Griffin

If the truth be told, then we would all have a greater appreciation of Black Culture Holidays. But if all else is lost in the revision of history, we must never forget Juneteenth. June 19, 1865 signified the day in history when the last slaves of Texas were set free. It officially ended of the Civil War.

Excerpts from the Handbook of Texas Online:

On June 19 ("Juneteenth"), 1865, Union general Gordon Granger read the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, thus belatedly bringing about the freeing of 250,000 slaves in Texas. The tidings of freedom reached slaves gradually as individual plantation owners read the proclamation to their bondsmen over the months following the end of the war.

It is important to note that only the war ended on Juneteenth. Slavery continued until December.

Let’s look at this history

The proclamation did not free any slaves in Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia, or any southern state (or part of a state) already under Union control. Instead, the Proclamation applied only to Confederate States that did not return to the Union by January 1, 1863.

Watch Night, New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1862 became a prelude to Emancipation Day and a black holiday tradition in its own right, as slaves and former slaves gathered in churches around the country for an all night prayer session.

In Boston on the night that the proclamation was announced, Douglass wrote of the spirit of those who had gathered with him at the telegraph office to witness slavery's death: “We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky...we were the dim light of the stars for the dawn of a new day...we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries.”

The crowds cheered. The end of slavery was in sight. Douglass next turned his attention to the struggle of blacks to be allowed to fight for their freedom. In 1863, Congress authorized black enlistment in the Union army. The Massachusetts 54th Regiment was the first black unit to be formed. (A biography of the life of Frederick Douglass by Sandra Thomas)

In the meantime:

Watch Night, Galveston, Texas, Confederate General J.B. Magruder was preparing an attack on the port city, then under Union control. As dawn broke, on Freedom Day, Magruder's 1,000 man land force moved across the 2.5 mile railroad bridge to Galveston Island and took up a position in the town. At first light, the Confederate rebels opened fire with cannons on the 260 barricaded Union soldiers on Kuhn's Wharf and on the Union warships in Galveston Harbor.

The Union navy was not prepared for two cottonclad Confederate gunboats, the Bayou City and the Neptune, that came at them full steam down the narrow channel. The USS Harriet Lane was the first of the seven Union warships to receive rebel fire. About 1,000 sharpshooters on the cottonclads took a devastating toll on the Union gunners. The Neptune rammed the Harriet Lane.

On this January 1, 1863, the very day that slaves were to be set free, the Confederate Army of Texas recaptured Galveston, the last Union toehold in the state. The war raged on for another two-and-a-half year. But the Emancipation officially allowed colored troops to enter into the fight.

An uprising against Lincoln’s draft sparked a riot in New York on July 13, 1863. Harper’s Weekly reported:

But in a short time the aim of the leaders in the riot movement appeared to be an indiscriminate attack upon the colored people, and upon those who were supposed to be in any way connected with the draft or with the Republican party. Several buildings were sacked and burned. The Tribune was attacked, and only saved by the vigorous efforts of the police; negroes were hunted down, several were murdered under the most revolting circumstances. The house of the Mayor was sacked, that of the Postmaster burned to the ground; railroad tracks were torn up, and for a while it seemed that the city was under control of the mob. Their most dastardly performance was the destruction of the Colored Orphan Asylum, in which some hundreds of children were provided for. This was sacked, and finally burnt to the ground.

The Union was losing the war by 1863, much maligned and demoralized by being conscripted to fight in an increasingly unpopular war. The New York riots against the coloreds was symptomatic of mass discontent that the purpose of the war had changed, that it was no longer a war to preserve the Union, but a war to free the slaves. With this realization, many whites outright deserted the Union Army.

To fill the void came some 200,000 colored troops. The following chronicle highlights the role of Colored troops in the Petersburg Campaign that eventually led to the surrender of General Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865.

Petersburg-Richmond Campaign

U.S. Colored troops were used extensively in several 1864 campaigns. Of particular note in the West was the Battle of Nashville, fought on December 15-16, in which eight black regiments played a key role in the Federal defeat of the Confederate Army of Tennessee by the Army of the Cumberland. The greatest number of U.S.C.T., however, served in the Virginia theatre as part of Gen. Grant's operations against Petersburg and Richmond in the last two years of the war.

Black units were especially active in the fighting around Petersburg during the summer of 1864. Referring to several combat missions that occurred near this city, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton asserted, “The hardest fighting was done by the black troops. The forts they stormed were the worst of all.”

The Colored Troops displayed their worth at the Battle of New Market Heights (Chaffin's Farm) near Richmond on September 29, 1864. Fourteen men, including Christian Fleetwood, who later became an active community leader in Washington, D.C., were presented the Medal of Honor for valor at New Market Heights.

The final participation by blacks in the Union war effort amounted to 120 infantry regiments, 12 heavy regiments, 10 light artillery batteries, and seven cavalry units. Several regiments, not placed under direct Federal authority, retained their state designations in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Louisiana. Black troops were present at the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox and the entrance to Richmond. They also participated in the pursuit of Lincoln's assassin and in some of the funeral activities for the slain president.

On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, and the war was effectively over. The other rebel armies surrendered soon after. Lincoln went to Richmond to make a public gesture of sitting at Jefferson Davis's own desk, symbolically saying to the nation that the President of the United States held authority over the entire land. He was greeted at the city as a conquering hero by freed slaves.

On April 11, Lincoln made a speech promoting voting rights for blacks. On April 14, he was shot by John Wilkes Booth and died the next day at age 56.

Although June 19 was three months away, the war raged on in Texas.

It is significant, however, to recognize the increasing role of Colored troops toward the end of the war. They were used for the most dangerous missions and suffered a disproportionate number of casualties during the closing months. The 25th Corp of Colored Troops was on the scene at Appomattox when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Five days later, they would pursue Lincoln’s assassins.

After Appomattox, some Colored brigades of the 25th Corp were dismantled and redeployed to Texas. They would later become the backbone of General Philip Sheridan’s Fifth Military District and an integral part of the state’s police force under Governor Elisha M. Pease.

It is a popular notion that slavery ended on Juneteenth. However, some slavery continued to exist until the entire institution was finally wiped out by the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 18, 1865.

In the state capital, Juneteenth was first celebrated in 1867 under the direction of the Freedmen's Bureau. The event has been historically celebrated with festivities, picnics, barbecue, watermelon, and “red soda water”. A hundred years later, during the 1960s, the holiday began to decline, probably as a result of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement.

Eddie Griffin Footnote:

I learned of Juneteenth in my childhood during the 1940s, when the holiday celebration was still at its height. I remember Juneteenth as a day of gentle defiance, when all black people took the day off from work. No permission was asked and no advance notice was given. It was just something everybody knew and accepted.

Domestic maids and servants like my mother simply stopped work and took time to celebrate the day similar to the way whites celebrated the Fourth of July. But there were one thing black maids and cooks did for their employers. They would fix their white employers and their families a special Juneteenth barbecue dinner and leave it in the oven for the next day. Otherwise, the whites were left to fend for themselves on that one day.


  1. What a beautiful and informative post. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Nice post, Happy Juneteenth.


  3. Great post, Eddie. Thanks for sharing this history.

  4. Hey Eddie,

    I love, love, love the post in fact I'm calling my daughter upstairs to read it now

  5. Thank you all for letting me share. This is part of my job to re-write History.

  6. Juneteenth is America’s 2nd Independence Day celebration. 29 states recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or state holiday observance, as well as the Congress of the United States.

    Together we will see Juneteenth become a national holiday in America!

    Rev. Ronald V. Myers, Sr., M.D.
    National Juneteenth Holiday Campaign
    National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF)
    National Juneteenth Christian Leadership Council (NJCLC)

  7. After reading the article it is not clear why this date is celebrated rather than the date of the actual Emancipation Proclamation or end of the war.