The first Juneteenth Day was June 19th, 1865. Two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
As an individual who has always prided myself on being well-versed in black history, I was aghast when I first learned of Juneteenth Day in 2009.
Juneteenth Day is yet another example of promises made and broken by the United States of America. As many know but few show, Juneteenth Day originated in 1865 on June 19th as Union soldiers led by General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas bringing the news that the Civil War had come to an end at that the enslaved were free.
Mind you, it shouldn’t have had to take a Union general to personally deliver the message of black freedom in America as federal mandate, especially not two and a half years following the Emancipation Proclamation.
The very fact that it took an individual to personally deliver the message was a testament of how the Lone Star State was determined to squeeze every ounce they could out of the institution of slavery.
Historical records say the reason it took so long in Texas was because there were too few Union soldiers to enforce the new Executive Order.
However, I’d inject that it may have been as much about a lack of willingness to do so than the logistics to do so. From historical records, we’re able to glean that the attitudes of the rank and file members of the Union Army were very anti-war and anti-black simultaneously.
Yet, the phenomenon of delayed justice for disenfranchised blacks would continue to take place throughout the history of blacks in America. As late as World War II, black men, boys, and women were still being sold into bondage, according to Washington Monthly.
There are also testimonies of elders who claimed to have been living in virtual slavery in Louisiana and Mississippi as late as the 1960s. A dream deferred is a dream delayed. A dream delayed by government corruption then becomes a two and a half year continuation of a nightmare.
America loves stories, and one prominent story is that of a messenger who was murdered on his way to deliver news of freedom to Texas. Yet another tale claims Texas slaveholders deliberately withheld the news in order to maintain their grip on power.
Another still claims federal troops allowed the continuation of slavery in Texas in order to grant slave owners one last cotton harvest before enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation.
The proclamation led to a vast exodus from Texas plantations, but many remained on plantations to work out how they could be employers of their former slavers.
The Juneteenth Day celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.
For me, what Juneteenth Day stands for is the resilience of black life in a country whose historic disdain for their efforts to be truly independent resonates through time.
It is a big middle finger to those 19th century pseudo-scientists who believed black people would go extinct without the guidance of altruistic whites.
It also serves as a mile marker on the long road to freedom and a libation to those that didn’t make it.