A Juneteenth Follow-Up
Saturday’s Juneteenth marker unveiling was impressive. I’ve been to a lot of marker dedications, but never one as big or as well-organized as this one. Kudos to everyone involved in putting this together. Both the chairman and executive directors of the Texas Historical Commission came down from Austin (rare for them to travel to the same function), as well as our U.S. Representative and State Senator. They all said the right things and the elected officials, who are all up for re-election this year, didn’t veer off topic. The most important address, one not on the program, was by 83-year-old Rev. Virgil A. Wood, who described his own experience as a seventeen-year-old kid in the 1940s, interviewing an old man who recalled the Federal soldiers coming to the plantation to deliver the news of emancipation, when the man had been ten years old. It wasn’t that long ago, in purely human terms.
This being Texas, though, the attendee who got the most attention was former local high school football player Mike Evans, recently selected by Tampa Bay as the No. 7 in the NFL draft:
Juneteenth arose out of the unique situation of Texas and the Trans-Mississippi at the end of the war, so it’s a little difficult to explain to anyone unfamiliar with that — which is to say, almost everyone among the general public.
The Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department did not formally surrender until June 2, 1865 — TWO MONTHS after the fall of Richmond. During that whole time, except for a few isolated areas, Texas was not occupied by Union troops and the whole area was in a sort of limbo, still officially in rebellion but without a clear course and without a national leadership. The U.S. Navy officially took possession of Texas on June 5, but did not have soldiers to establish a formal presence. General Granger arrived with troops at Galveston on June 17, and two days later issued a series of administrative notices formally notifying all of Texas that the state was now under formal military occupation, who the key officers and departments were, and so on. The third of these notices was General Order No. 3, that formally announced emancipation under the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. These notices were published in papers around the state, first in Galveston (below) and then elsewhere as the news was carried inland by telegraph and railroad.
The wording of Granger’s order was not happenstance; it was carefully crafted based on other officers’ orders and experiences elsewhere. Granger’s order, though, is most famous because it was the last and covered the largest territory. A colleague who’s been researching this subject has found also that this notice was not just pro forma — it really did have a profound and immediate effect as it spread across Texas, and enslaved persons received word of it in various ways, and within a short time June 19, the original date of Granger’s order, had become an important commemoration day among Freedmen. The African American community in Houston pooled its funds to buy and establish Emancipation Park in 1872. Juneteenth is mentioned in several LoC slave narratives, and the word “Juneteenth” itself was established by the 1890s, even as the celebration was being brought by Texans to other states. Parsons, Kansas Weekly Blade, June 22, 1895:
Last Wednesday the citizens of this city and vicinity, native Texans, assembled in the fairgrounds to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary if the liberation of the bonded Afro-American of Texas. After indulging in various pleasures, they were called to the sumptuous repasts that were spread by our energetic ladies and our worthy citizen and coadjuntor [?], R. B. Floyd. At 3:30 the people were called together in the amphitheater to hear the speakers of the day. The exercises were opened by the song, “Hold the Fort,” led by Presiding Elder, A. M. Ward; prayer, led by Rev. J. R. Ransom; “John Brown’s Body” was then led by Rev. Ward; E. W. Dorsey then stated why the 19th of June was celebrated. He was followed by S. O. Clayton, who in an address of twenty minutes delivered volumes of words which were impregnated with varied and bright thoughts. Closely following the speakers an animated game of base ball was witnessed; when the happy throng repaired to their homes expressing themselves highly pleased with their first Juneteenth celebration.
Emancipation celebration band, Austin, Texas, June 19, 1900. Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, via University of North Texas Portal to Texas History.
Planning gets underway now for a proper sesquicentennial celebration of the end of the war and Juneteenth next year. The Civil War didn’t end at Appomattox in April 1865; it ended here in Texas in June, with the paired events of the surrender of of the Trans-Mississippi Department and Granger’s General Order No. 3. It’s a part of the story that needs a better telling and wider recognition. Here’s looking forward to a grand 2015!