Dr. Amy Tillerson-Brown — Juneteenth 2024: A Day of Jubilee and Commitment to Justice

Juneteenth is a recently-recognized national holiday, but its celebration, and the history it represents, are anything but recent.

Six African Americans stand together in a field to celebrate Juneteenth.

Above: A photograph of a “Juneteenth” Emancipation Day Celebration in Austin, Texas in 1900.

By Dr. Amy Tillerson-Brown, ýAPP Professor of History

On Monday, June 19, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger and 2,000 Union
soldiers descended upon the 32-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide island of Galveston, TX — property of Mexico four decades previous — to read General Order #3, an Executive Order that informed enslaved Africans their freedom had come.

This freedom was contested territory. June 19th was not the first time Blacks had been
promised freedom by the United States of America. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which, while ostensibly freeing Blacks enslaved in states rebellious to the Union, was mostly unenforceable in the Confederate States of America that had taken up arms against the United States of America to preserve and expand slavery. In Texas, the Emancipation Proclamation had virtually no impact.

Even though the Proclamation’s applicability was limited throughout the war, Blacks enslaved in all states and territories should have been instantly released upon the Confederate Army’s surrender on April 9, 1865. (The Union victory had little bearing on slavery in the “border states” of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri because those states had been excluded by the Proclamation.) This said it is important to understand that hundreds of thousands of Black people did not wait for a declaration from the federal government or the end of the Civil War to actualize the freedom and humanity they were born with, despite the law. They absconded; hundreds of thousands to Union lines and hundreds more on the Underground Railroad. Black men, women, and children who had waited far too long for freedom were elated when Union troops arrived in Galveston on June 19, 1865, and read General Order #3.

More progressive than the language of the Emancipation Proclamation on the one hand, the language signaled only one step of the Black freedom struggle. General Order #3 promised formerly enslaved people “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves,” and clarified the relationship between slaveholders and enslaved as one “between employer and hired labor.” On the other hand, it also declared, “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” Formerly enslaved Africans were no longer legally enslaved, but their freedom had conditions — They were free-ish.

Granger’s arrival brought something different than previous murmurings of Emancipation. Odessa Phillips remembered what her grandfather had told her as a child: “It wasn’t no piece of paper that freed the slaves. It was the men with the guns!” And even with the guns, General Order #3 — promised only freedom … no back wages … no housing … no 160-acre parcel of land similar to what White Homesteaders received in 1862 … no real freedom to assemble … but freedom, nonetheless. Blacks in Galveston were acutely aware of the limits of Order #3 and decided to focus on realizing freedom for themselves. Blacks took the promise of freedom, resisted all other attempts to strip them of their humanity, built their own communities, and have for over a century, participated in the Black freedom struggle.

One year later, June 19, 1866, Black freedmen in Galveston organized the first Juneteenth celebration. June 7, 1979, Texas recognized June 19th as a state holiday—the first state to do so due in large part to the activism of Mrs. Opal Lee, Texas native known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.” June 2021, a year after the killing of George Floyd by police officers that appeared to heighten the nation’s awareness of not only police brutality, but also systemic and structural racism, President Joe Biden made Juneteenth a national holiday.

In many African American communities since 1866, June 19th has been a day of joyous celebration, remembrance of the struggles and suffering of enslavement, and hope for many generations to come. Many Blacks who dared to act on the profession of Black freedom have been hunted with no reprisal. This reality buttresses our contemporary challenges and obligations to continue the trek for racial justice. Similar to the way notification of emancipation was not eagerly disseminated or adhered to, today’s road to racial equity remains shrouded and winding.

Juneteenth reminds us of the progress our nation has witnessed as well as the work that remains.

Dr. Amy Tillerson-Brown is a professor of history and head of the history department at ýAPP, where she also the dean of the Mary Baldwin College for Women. Tillerson-Brown is noted for her contributions to civil rights activism and education as a frequent contributor to , , and .