This weekend there will be barbecues, pies, home-made strawberry soda, and other treats that have become common features of Juneteenth, a celebration of the end of slavery in the United States that has its roots in the joyful celebrations of newly-freed slaves in Texas at the end of the Civil War. It is thought to be the oldest continuous celebration of emancipation and, though it has waxed and waned in popularity over the last 150+ years, it has probably never been as strong a tradition as it is today. Because the 19th falls on a Sunday and Father’s Day this year, most large celebrations are planned for Saturday.
On the 19th of June, 1865, from the balcony of the Ashton Villa in Galveston, Texas, Union General Gordon Granger read aloud “General Order #3″ that carried the message of the Emancipation Proclamation to Texas, and slaves in that state at last learned that they were free. Although the Proclamation was formally issued on January 1, 1863, the news of it had not reached slaves in most of Texas. Union troops then needed to enforce this order throughout a large state, so that slaves were not all released on the same day in Texas — but the 19th is the day that is commemorated. Spontaneous celebrations broke out as the news spread, and these gave rise to an annual events to mark the day. As some of these freed slaves traveled to nearby states to find relatives, they carried the tradition of celebrating June 19th with them and over time it spread to all fifty states.
The American Folklife Center’s collections include recordings of interviews with former slaves who were asked about their memories of becoming free. These are from several collections, anthologized in the presentation Voices from the Days of Slavery. It should be remembered that by the 1930s and early 1940s when most of these were documented, the former slaves were elderly, and most were freed when they were children or teenagers. Here are a few examples. 
One of the most memorable interviews in which a former slave describes the day he became free is not from Texas, but Skidaway Island, Georgia, where Wallace Quarterman was among those freed in the sea islands shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863. He was interviewed in 1935 and says he was born in 1844, so he would have been about 19 when he was freed. When you listen to the recording, you will hear interviewer Zora Neale Huston ask him, “After they said you can go free, then what did you do?” Quarterman describes the newly freed slaves refusing work for pay on the plantation, preferring to go free. Then beats on a drum and sings the chorus from “Kingdom Coming,” an abolitionist song by Henry Clay Work (1862). He then says, “So we had a big big breaking up right there.” “The break up” or “the big break up” is what the end of slavery was commonly called in the South. (This is in part 3 of a 3 part recording. The other recordings and transcripts are available in links at the bottom of the record. In part 2 he recalls hearing that the Yankees were coming.)
As a “big boy” in 1865, Billy McCrea, remembered the Union troops coming into Jasper, Texas. In this interview with John Lomax in 1940, He says he will be about 89 in October, so he would have been about 13. He recalls being impressed by the mules and horses, the cannons, and the blue uniforms of the soldiers, as any boy might be. He also remembers his master telling him and his mother that they were free. (This is part 2 of a 2 part recording.)
Harriet Smith tells a story of the chaos and jubilation that ensued as she and other slaves on the plantation in Hays County, Texas learned that they were free from the Union soldiers to interviewer John Henry Faulk in 1941. She says that she was about 13 at the time of the “break up” of slavery. The second part of the recording (at the link) begins with her story of a friend, a girl who was also a slave, who had lost her arm in an accident with sugarcane grinding equipment. She talks about sitting on a fence watching the Union soldiers and their beautiful horses when her friend took off with one of the soldiers and she never saw her again. She talks about her family’s decision to stay on the plantation and continue working there. (Part 2 of a 4 part recording.)
Laura Smally tells of learning she was free as a child on a plantation near Bellville, Texas. She describes the difficult conditions for slave children there in this 1941 interview with John Henry Faulk. She was a child when she was freed, she says she was about 10 years old when she and her mother left the plantation. She concludes the first segment of the interview with a mention of the annual celebration that would grow out of the freeing of slaves in Texas. When asked about the Civil War she says she remembers that her master went off to the war, and when he came back he did not tell his slaves that they were free. “He turned them loose on the 19th of June. That’s why, you know, we celebrate that day. Colored folks celebrate that day.” Later Faulk asks what happened the day she was freed (towards the end of part 4 of this 5 part interview), but she says she can not remember much. “But I, I remember, you know, the time you give them a big dinner, you know on the 19th.” Apparently she did not understand what the dinner was for on the day she was freed. “We didn’t know. They just thought, you know, were just feeding us, you know. Just had a long table. And just had, just a little of everything you want to eat, you know, and drink, you know. Now, and they say that was on the 19th — and everything you want to eat and drink. Well, you see, I didn’t know what that was for.”
The process of freeing slaves in the United States was long and complicated, as each state came up with its own method of doing so in its own time, from 1777 when Vermont prohibited slavery until the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, ratified on December 6th and adopted on December 18, 1865, finally ended legal slavery in the United States. Common in the northeast and mid-Atlantic states were laws that freed the last children born into slavery gradually, with a plan to release them as adults. The Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863 allowed Union forces to free slaves and attempt to recruit them by declaring that they were free. But so long as the war continued, the Confederate states resisted freeing their slaves. The Proclamation only applied to states “in rebellion against the United States,” so states that were still part of the Union where slaves were held could act to free slaves or not depending upon the will of state legislators and voters. It did signal that the end of legal slavery was nearing, but there was great variation on how states responded. It is often said that June 19th, 1865 marked the freeing of the last slaves in the United States. It did not. At that time Kentucky had debated when and how slaves in the state should be freed, but had not enacted a law to free them. Maryland had legislation to gradually free the children of slaves over time, and some slave owners had freed their slaves during the war, but many people were still enslaved. Other states, especially on the border north of the division between what had been the Confederacy and the Union still had some slaves legally owned at the time the 13th Amendment became law in December.
Because of this complex history, different states may mark emancipation on different days, based on the release of slaves in that state. Some of us remember studying about the Emancipation Proclamation on or about September 22, as this coincides with President Lincoln’s 1862 statement of his intent to free slaves in 10 states if the rebellion did not end by January 1. This was the release of the preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation. Falling near the beginning of the school year, it is a convenient date for teachers to teach students about that history. The actual date the Proclamation came into effect coincides with New Year’s Day, while the anniversary of the amendment that freed the last slaves falls close to the winter holidays.
There is a powerful need for many Americans to mark the day when slavery ended in the United States and share that across the nation. The laws and the documents we use to mark great events do not provide such a day. So it was up to the people to create their own day and their own ways of celebrating. The 19th of June is the day the people have chosen. It is a good day for a barbecue and other outdoor activities in much of the country. And so we have a celebration of the people and by the people that is still developing as people decide for themselves how to celebrate.
We at the American Folklife Center would be interested to hear how you celebrate Juneteenth. What special foods are commonly served? Are there activities that you especially look forward to in each year? If you are willing to share, please do so in the comments at the end of this article. If you have photographs of Juneteenth celebrations, consider participating in the My Traditions project. [Project ended 2016]
- The presentation from the Manuscripts Division: Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938 contains many more narratives of former slaves written down by interviewers. Among the narratives of people who were formerly slaves in Texas is the story of Emma Taylor, who remembers that “One day mars say we’re all free and we have a big celebration, eating and dancing.” [Item number 420253]