America is the world leader and defender of freedom and we should take every opportunity to proclaim it and celebrate it when it occurred or occurs. Arguably, the next three weeks is the prime time of the year to celebrate freedom and independence – starting today. Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S. It dates back to June 19, 1865, and, as is so often the case for freedom, it was delivered to the world courtesy of the U.S. Army.
Some 2,000 Union soldiers, led by a West Point educated general, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, had arrived at Galveston, Texas, to formally declare the Civil War had ended. Texas had not been a Confederate battleground state, and thus slaves taken and held there were not affected by President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, announced more than 2.5 years earlier and implemented on Jan. 1, 1863.
On June 19, from the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, Granger read General Order No. 3 to the people of Texas, announcing the total emancipation of those held as slaves:
“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.”
Reports of reactions that day “ranged from pure shock to immediate jubilation.”
Many, now former slaves, lingered to learn of this new employer to employee relationship, but many freed men (and women) “left before these offers were completely off the lips of their former ‘masters’ …” rightly feeling that leaving the plantation, even with nowhere to go, would be their first taste of freedom.
Granger and his troops announced and enforced Republican President Lincoln’s executive order known as the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth marked the end of the Civil War in the western U.S. but more importantly, it marked the jubilant celebration of freedom for 12% of the U.S. population previously held in slavery throughout the southern and border states.
While President Lincoln led the Republican controlled Senate and House to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery before Juneteenth (and before his assassination) the amendment would not be ratified by three-fourths of the states until later that year, on Dec. 18, making all former slaves permanently and constitutionally free.
First recognized and celebrated in Texas where it occurred, Juneteenth is now recognized as a state holiday or special day of observance in 45 states, including Kansas. Commemorate and memorialize Juneteenth – our heritage, our history and our legacy of freedom.
Greg Beck is a Leavenworth Times columnist.