As we approach the one-year mark to the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, which will take place on June 19, 2015, it is important to place in context the event that will be widely commemorated and celebrated.
2015 will undoubtedly and deservedly bring a great deal of attention to Galveston and Juneteenth.
As someone who studies and writes on the history of this period, I find it is often challenging to separate the myths and misunderstandings surrounding the actual historical events of that summer at the end of the Civil War. But it is important that we do so in order to give Juneteenth its real meaning and significance. So, to get that process started, I will offer my own version of four myths and one great truth about Juneteenth.
Myth 1: Juneteenth involved a speech given by Gen. Gordon Granger.
A staff officer for Gen. Granger issued General Orders No. 3 (the ”Juneteenth Order”) on June 19, 1865, in written form. There is no contemporaneous documentation that Gen. Granger or anyone else read the order or delivered a speech involving its terms. That was not typically the way the military handled issuing general orders, and Gen. Granger was otherwise occupied with a million details of his new command.
Myth 2: Juneteenth involved Ashton Villa and a public reading from a balcony.
Once again, there is no contemporary evidence that the Juneteenth order was read at Ashton Villa or any other public place in Galveston in 1865.
This is probably a tradition that started in the early years following the first Juneteenth.
The Juneteenth order was directed broadly at all of the inhabitants of Texas. A reading from a balcony in Galveston, particularly a private residence such as Ashton Villa, would not have served the military’s purpose of seeing that it was broadly distributed.
Instead, what we know is that the order was part of a whole series of orders that were published for many weeks afterward in every newspaper in the state. It was also printed on handbills designed to be distributed and posted in public places. Some of these handbills are preserved in public archives.
Myth 3: The Juneteenth Order was issued at the 1861 Custom House at 20th and Postoffice.
Although the Custom House is a wonderful building that is rich with Galveston and Texas history, it was not the location of the headquarters from which the Juneteenth order was issued.
Gen. Granger’s headquarters was at a building (no longer in existence) near the intersection of 22nd Street and The Strand. It is hoped that a historic marker commemorating the event will be placed at this site in time for the 150th anniversary.
Myth 4: The Juneteenth order freed the slaves in Texas or brought news that the slaves were freed.
The Juneteenth order did not itself emancipate any person held in slavery. The language of the order stated that President Lincoln had already accomplished that as a legal matter in his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 and the final proclamation that followed on Jan. 1, 1863. This was not really news to many in Texas.
Lincoln’s emancipation proclamations in 1862 and 1863 had been widely covered in the Texas press (with a negative spin, of course), and Gen. Granger’s order was not a surprise. In fact, at the time it was issued, the Juneteenth order was not regarded as particularly important or controversial.
In many parts of the South, the freedmen had already received emancipation by the broad movements of Union armies and the capture of key cities.
What made Texas relatively unique, and gave the Juneteenth order its true scope and importance, was that Union armies had never broadly invaded the state. Gen. Granger’s arrival, accompanied by large numbers of Union troops and the surrender of Confederate forces, gave the Federals actual control of Texas for the first time in the war.
In effect, Granger’s arrival finally gave teeth to the Emancipation Proclamations that had been issued in Washington.
One Great Truth: The Juneteenth Order resulted directly in the emancipation of a huge number of people and deserves its place as one of the great instruments of human liberation.
Despite its rather humble and inglorious origins as a routine order issued by a military commander on arrival at a new headquarters, the Juneteenth order was the document that was distributed throughout Texas and surrounding areas to signal to slave owners and the freedmen that the institution of slavery was now formally at an end. A new era was at hand.
In reviewing hundreds of accounts by former slaves describing the moment that they received their freedom, I have noticed that it is frequently the case that this life-changing moment was accomplished or accompanied by the reading of a document. Sometimes the document was read by a former master and sometimes it was a military officer or public official.
In almost every case the document that was read was a handbill or newspaper version of the Juneteenth order issued here in Galveston on June 19, 1865.
It is no wonder then that the freedmen decided to commemorate the issuance of that document as the key event that started them down the road to freedom. That is the real meaning and significance of Juneteenth.