The news came late—two-and-a-half years late—and in the form of an official pronouncement. Known as “General Order No. 3,” the edict was delivered by U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger from the balcony of a mansion in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865.
But to the African-American population of the Texas territory, it might have come direct from heaven out of the mouth of an archangel: President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing them from slavery.
The widespread joy in Galveston and other Texas towns nearby as the news spread—and commemorative celebrations in other places around the U.S., held over many years and today in virtually all states—became known as “Juneteenth,” a day observed by African Americans and their fellow citizens in memory of that date of glad tidings (the name combines “June” and “nineteenth”). Today more than 40 states officially recognize Juneteenth as a state observance, and there is a movement to have it declared a national day of observance, similar to Flag Day and Mother’s Day.
The Library of Congress holds Lincoln’s handwritten first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, and displayed it early this year in its “The Civil War in America” exhibition in Washington, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
In addition to being the name of the time-honored celebration, “Juneteenth” is also the title of African American writer Ralph Ellison’s novel, published posthumously. The Library of Congress holds the papers of Ralph Ellison—best-known for his classic novel “Invisible Man”—in its Manuscript Division and Ellison’s library in its Rare Book and Special Collection Division.
This article, written by Jennifer Gavin, is featured in the May-June 2013 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM, now available for download here. You can also view the archives of the Library’s former publication from 1993 to 2011.