By Stephen Smoot
On June 19, 1865, 2,000 Union troops under General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston Bay. Likely, the men from more temperate climates suffered somewhat in their heavy woolen uniforms under a blazing Texas summer sun. They, however, carried news that would bring unimaginable joy to 250,000 who suffered worse.
They brought the news, three months after the burning of the capital of the Confederate States, two and a half months after Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of Robert E. Lee, that the President of the United States had ordered their freedom. “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
General Order Number Three also stated that “This involves an absolute equality of rights, and rights of property between former master and slave.”
President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation actually freed no slaves. Its wording declared slaves in Confederate held areas free, but not those in slave states such as Maryland, Kentucky, Union held Virginia, or the newly created West Virginia. As Union forces moved through large segments of the Confederacy, some slaveowners hoped to maintain their control by moving west.
The very next year, the freedmen and women of Galveston celebrated the day in which soldiers brought news of liberation. From there over the next few years, the celebration spread through black churches across the state of Texas.
According to Harvard professor and Mineral County native Henry Louis Gates Jr., in an interview with CNBC that Juneteenth became “an occasion for gathering lost family members, measuring progress against freedom, and inculcating rising generations with the values of self-improvement and racial uplift.”
He told CBS News in a different interview that “One of the reasons that I think Juneteenth stuck is that we’re all charmed by the poetic brilliance of the name, ‘Juneteenth.’ What better name for June 19 could there possibly be? It’s great, it’s fetching, you know? It’s catchy.”
The holiday spread throughout the United States in the 20th century during the Great Migration of black Americans from the rural South into northeastern and Midwestern cities. Along the way, those who celebrated Juneteenth regarded it as a Second Independence Day for black Americans who descended from slaves.
The celebration takes on new focus in the State of West Virginia this year with a proclamation issued by Governor Jim Justice making Juneteenth an official state holiday. It reads that “it is fitting and proper that the public employees of this State be permitted to cease business on Monday June 19, 2023 to spend an extended and enjoyable holiday weekend with their loved ones.”