SAN JOSE, June 19, 2013 ― Juneteenth, is also known as Emancipation Day, or Freedom Day, is a day to celebrate freedom, not just for black Americans, but for all Americans.
Juneteenth was originally created to commemorate the days of June 18 and 19 in 1865, when slaves in Galveston, Texas, first learned that the American Civil War was over and the Union had prevailed, which meant that they had received their long awaited liberation. At that time, it was a day of celebration for the emancipation of the slaves. It is highly unlikely that in 1865, white Texans would have joined in the festivities of singing, dancing, and feasting with the former slaves.
As could have easily been expected, the majority of former Confederates after the war hated the simple spectacle of former slaves dancing in the streets, let alone the more radical changes in their lifestyles and social status. Yet on June 18, 1865, over two months after Lee’s surrender at Appomatox, U.S. Army General Gordon Granger marched 2,000 Union soldiers into Galveston, Texas to secure the state and oversee emancipation procedures. Then, on June 19, 1865, while standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, Union Army General Granger read the basic contents of “General Order No. 3” that represented the practical implementation of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
This decree had to be backed up by the 2,000 federal troops due to the staunch resistance from the former Confederates in Texas. In reality, the enforcement of the emancipation of the slaves by federal troops was necessary throughout the South. Ultimately the Union Army established martial law in all of the former Confederate states. As the words of “General Order No. 3” sunk in, both local blacks and whites may have been stunned in disbelief.
For the former slaves, the disbelief faded as genuine expressions of joy and jubilation overwhelmed those who were present. The freshness of freedom demanded immediate response. The blacks in Galveston did not need a political discourse to instruct them on the significance of that moment in history as they sang and danced with joy. They did not need a history lesson to instruct them on the fundamental change that had just occurred in the United States of America. On that day, for those former slaves in Galveston, for the people who had been in bondage for their entire lives, all of their previous suffering became history as people who were once owned as property were told they were free by the U.S. Army’s General Order number 3.
The reality of celebration suspended the practical considerations of worrying about the legal fine points and logistical implications. However, just as emancipation created radical changes in the previous stranglehold of white dominion in the South, the former slaves had to deal with such radical changes as well. Unfortunately, the overriding change was massive destruction; all other changes that occurred were the outcome of the most destructive and deadliest war in the history of the United States. Emancipation came at an extraordinarily high cost, and it needed the U.S. Army to enforce it.
It’s been said that in the American south, history isn’t dead, and it is hardly even history. This part of American history is difficult to come to grips with. It still has the power to stiru up strong emotions, even 150 years later. The bitter fruit of our slave history makes it harder to see the triumphs over oppression and forget the incredible moments of success and joy on the path to freedom. We hear Jeremiah Wright shouting “God damn America,” and forget this incredible moment in time, when white and black soldiers from the Army of the Republic defeated the Confederate Army to end the brutality of slavery.
The victory over slavery was as powerful and significant to who we are as Americans as the institution of slavery had ever been. The freed slaves in Galveston needed no permission from their former masters as they danced and sang in this precious moment of realized liberation and genuine freedom.
Complete equality was still more than a century away, and we still harvest the bitter fruit of inequality and hatred that were sowed by our ancestors. But freedom was so precious that those former slaves began to sing and dance in a way they had never been able to dance before. Those who have never known bondage or real enslavement can hardly comprehend the feelings of those who had just been freed. These people must have been overwhelmed with emotions on one hand, and on the other hand, the concept of freedom may have been unbelievable. However, Mr. Lincoln and the Union Army had accomplished what certainly had seemed almost impossible at the outset of the Civil War.
Juneteenth, or Emancipation Day, or Freedom Day deserves a more substantial place in the nation’s history. It should be a day in which all Americans should celebrate their freedom. It should be a day in which all Americans could reflect on the nation’s true origins once again. Definitely, the war was the most devastating war America engaged in, but as Lincoln could comprehend it, the United States was either the either the Land of the Free or it was not. The Civil War, when all the smoke had cleared and the dust had settled, America became just a bit closer to the dream of many of the founding fathers. Mr. Lincoln saw that and he also saw that the very survival of a government intent on such a dream, could ensure eventual freedom for all people. So be it!
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