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The Birth of Juneteenth; Voices of the Enslaved

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On Saturday, June 19, 1865, in Limestone County, Texas, plantation owner Logan Stroud stood on the front porch of this house to tell more than 150 of his enslaved workers that they were free. Photo: Historic American Building Survey. Prints and Photographs Division.

On June 19, 1865, Logan Stroud, one of the largest slave-owners in east Texas, walked to the front porch of his plantation home, which he called Pleasant Retreat. More than 150 of his enslaved workers gathered around to listen.

Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger. Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries. Prints and Photographs Division.

He pulled out a dispatch from U.S. Maj. Gen  Gorden Granger — General Order Number 3 — issued that very morning in Galveston from the Union Army’s Texas headquarters. The Confederacy had officially surrendered in April, but the last holdouts in Texas had fought on until they, too, were defeated. Now that the war was settled, President Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation would become the law of the land, even in the Lone Star State.

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, ‘all slaves are free,’ ” Stroud began, reading the opening line of Granger’s order. “This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves…”

Stroud’s family had come to Texas when he was just a boy. They built an empire of more than 11,000 acres — cotton, cattle, corn, wheat, pigs, sheep — and grew wealthy on slave labor. Now he was 51 and all that was over.

Stroud began to weep.

One of his daughters had to take over the reading. “…the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor….”

The details of the day were partly recorded by the Limestone County Historical Commission. And so it was that the Stroud front porch became one of the birthplaces of Juneteenth — when the final group of enslaved people in the United States were informed of the end of the Civil War, of slavery and of the brutal bondage that had defined their lives.

The Library has a photograph and architectural drawings of the house, both made in 1942 by the Historic American Buildings Survey. Its antebellum prosperity long gone, the one-story, wood-frame house looms up out of the flat landscape like an abandoned, Greek-Revival testament to Southern Gothic, a Faulknerian mansion brought to life.

It’s one of  the thousands of documents, recordings and photographs in the Library’s collections that document Juneteenth and the aftermath of slavery by the people who endured it. The Historic Buildings survey also documents the origins of Emancipation Park in Houston, where some of the first and largest Juneteenth celebrations were held. From the survey: “The first description of the park grounds comes from elderly former residents, who describe the park at the turn of the century as being enclosed by a six-foot-high privacy fence and encircled by a racetrack, with the remainder of the property containing two dance floors, a stable, and a beer tavern.”

A portion of a handwritten copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, with the famous phrase “shall be then, thence forward, and forever free.” Rare Book And Special Collections Division.

The most extensive collection of stories is in ”Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938.” It contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts and more than 500 black-and-white portraits of formerly enslaved people.

Billy McCrea grew up in slavery in Texas. Photo: Ruby T. Lomax. Prints and Photographs Division.

Some of the most haunting aspects of the stories are the matter-of-fact nature in which they’re related, both in interview transcripts and in recordings. Through the crackles and hisses of a 1940 recording in Jasper, Texas, the voice of Billy McCrea shines through, narrating his youth “way back in slavery time.”

“Right at the creek there, they take them (runaways) and put them on…a log, lay them down and fasten the and whup them,” McCrea tells interviewer Ruby Lomax. “You hear them (runaways) hollering and praying on them logs….Now I see all of that when I was a boy.”

McCrea’s memories are in “Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories,” a collection in the American Folklife Center. These 23 interviews were recorded between 1932 and 1975, and offer fascinating glimpses into a world gone by. (Note before listening: Speakers often recount racial epithets used to describe black people. Also, in an inadvertent window into racial attitudes during the time of the recordings, the interviewers often address their subjects as “uncle.”)

Baltimore’s Fountain Hughes was a remarkably clear-voiced 101-year-old when he was interviewed in 1949. He was a teenager when the Civil War ended. He remembered it well.

“We were slaves,” he says of his youth in Charlottesville, Virginia. “We belonged to people. They’d sell us like they sell horses and cows and hogs and all like that. Have a auction bench, and they’d put you on, up on the bench and bid on you just same as you bidding on cattle, you know…selling women, selling men.”

After the war ended, he said, “We was just turned out like a lot of cattle. You know how they turn cattle out in a pasture? Well, after freedom, you know, colored people didn’t have nothing.”

This, then, is what was coming to an end on June 19, 1865, on that front porch in Limestone County, Texas. The end of an era and the beginning of the celebrations of Juneteenth.

The new era, though, was not a clean break from the past, not even more than a century later. In 1981, a few black teenagers were celebrating Juneteenth on a small boat in a Limestone County lake. Police came out to arrest them on charges of having a small amount of marijuana. While trying to ferry them to shore, the boat capsized. Three teens drowned. The New York Times reported the results of the subsequent trial on page 30 of the A section, under a roundup of of news items headed, “Around the Nation.”

The lead sentence:

“An all-white jury today acquitted three former Limestone County officers in the drownings of three black teenagers who were in custody when a boat capsized on a Texas lake.”

That, too, is a story from Limestone County that resonates on Juneteenth 2020.

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Comments (17)

  1. Thank you for summarizing the origins of this historic day, for profiling this part of LoC’s collections and for connecting the past to today. If only we would adopt the slogans about remembrance that we apply to wars and acts of others on us to the acts we perpetuate ourselves. Thanks, LoC for preserving all of our heritage even if we don’t always acknowledge it in a timely way!

    • Thank you!

    Go not to the temple to bow down your head in prayers, first learn to bow in humility before your fellow men. And apologize to those you have wronged. Thank you Logan Stroud.
    Now(emphasis mine) there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither Slave nor Freeman, there is neither Male nor Female; for you are all ONE in CHRIST JESUS. ( Galatian 3:28. New American Standard Bible)

  3. Thank you Library of Congress for sharing this article and important piece of our history. They turned our people away like you do cattle in green pastures with absolutely NOTHING and expected our ancestors to survive? Why are we the only race that never received reparations? Why? To hear the slave accounts of being sold from one master to another brings tears and sorrow… but I still have HOPE. A HOPE in the unseen!! The time has come for ALL African Americans to reap from the sins of the past. REPARATIONS NOW!

  4. While reading this article lt brought tears to my eyes I remember when blacks weren’t allowed in the front of the stores.I were there when those boys were drowned in that lake by police while handcuff I were celebrating the ninthteen of June at what we call coma he crossing that sits next to the lake I still remember like yesterday.

  5. A Good read and informative. Thank you. I had no idea about Juneteenth.

    • So glad you liked it!

  6. Very informative. Lots I did not know.

  7. I was astounded that the holiday was approved & passed into law, yet this country owes African-Americans so much more. America is great due to centuries of free labor from slavery,followed by Jim Crow discrimination and segregation. When will it ever end? Thank you Ms. Tucker for reconstituting our sometimes sad — but always fascinating history!

    • Thank you!

  8. The Emancipation Proclamation was not a law. Presidents do not have unilateral power to create law. The Thirteenth Amendment is the law banning slavery.

    • Hi B. Taylor,

      Thanks for reading! The Emancipation Proclamation was not a law passed by Congress (and it not presented in the story as such). It was, as many a historian has written, many things at once, both practically and symbolically. Practically, it had the force of a military order for U.S. troops to free enslaved people as the troops moved through Confederate territory. It also showed the intent to destroy slavery in those states forever. It was notably silent as to the status of slaves in border states that had not joined the Confederacy. Symbolically, it showed the turning point in the war in Lincoln’s mind, from merely preserving the United States against rebellion to both preserving the Union AND ending slavery.

      All best, and happy Juneteenth,

  9. When the United Kingdom abolished slavery, the government compensated slave owners for the value lost from freeing enslaved people.
    In 1833, Britain used 40% of its national budget for the Slavery Abolition Act, which was such a large sum that British citizens only finished paying the off debt in 2015.

  10. I thoroughly enjoyed this article, but I’m not completely comfortable with a couple of statements. 1) Texas slaves were not “final group of enslaved people in the United States”. That ominous title belongs to enslaved people in two of the states exempted from the Proclamation. They were freed six months after June 1865.

    2) Given that Houston’s slaves (30+ miles from Galveston) were not emancipated until June 20th, I’d love to get more information about how the Strouds received a dispatch on the day it was written. Yes, its possible, but how? Consider this, an order from General Herron that was nearly identical to Granger’s Order was published in an East Texas newspaper on June 17th. Perhaps the Strouds were responding to that, rather than to Granger’s orders.

    I’m not arguing against your article. You probably have much more research than was included in this report. I simply need more details.

    That said, I thank your for this information.

    • Hi there,

      Thanks for writing and for your interest in the story. Briefly:

      1.) I think you’re referring to when Congress officially ratified the 13th Amendment, yes? That was the official end of slavery, but as a practical matter, it was over long before.
      2.) The Historic American Buildings Survey, which lists the Stroud home, gives the date of the reading as June 19th. The means of the message reaching the place isn’t recorded, but given that Granger was the military commander of the state, and was issuing his first orders establishing his command, one would presume the telegraph and then perhaps by horse. The Stroud plantation, as the Limestone County Historical Commission and many other sources note, was not only the largest slaveholding estate in the region, but also a storage and shipment center for the Confederate Army. That it would be designated as a priority for getting Granger’s order immediately seems logical. Could it have been the next day, a Sunday. or a few days later? Possibly. The LCHC records it being read in “June,” without specifying the date. But the LCHC also says that Stroud was a compassionate man (as far as slaveholders went) and might well have wanted the enslaved people to get the news as soon as he did. But, unless there’s documentation showing the American Historical Buildings Survey to be in error, we’ll go with that date.

      All best,

  11. Please correct the spelling of Mr. McCrae’s name as you spell it two ways:
    the voice of Billy McCrea shines through, narrating his youth “way back in slavery time.”

    “Right at the creek there, they take them (runaways) and put them on…a log, lay them down and fasten the and whup them,” McCrea tells interviewer Ruby Lomax. “You hear them (runaways) hollering and praying on them logs….Now I see all of that when I was a boy.”

    McCrae’s memories are in “

    • Will do & thanks for the catch!

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