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Juneteenth: Oldest-known commemoration celebrating end of slavery

By Joycelyn Biggs and Verda L. Parker | | June 20, 2014


In the wake of the nation preparing to commemorate   the birth of its independence, some Americans are gearing up for another celebration, which, to them, is of equal importance.

Since June 19, 1865, many Americans have commemorated “Juneteenth,” which is a combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth,” the oldest and first official emancipation of slavery in the state of Texas, according to juneteenth.com/.

“In accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” an excerpt from General Order No. 3, according to the website, www.juneteenth.com/general_order_no_3.htm.

The news was delivered two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had become official.

Although slaves should have been freed after the proclamation, there are several versions explaining why they were not. None are singled out as the accepted official account.

One version suggested the messenger carrying news of the emancipation proclamation was killed before arriving in Texas.

Another stated military personnel intentionally withheld the information to ensure that one last cotton crop would be harvested.

There is yet another version, which indicated slave owners were informed but opted to not share the news with the slaves in an effort to retain free labor.

General Order No. 3 further stated: “This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor.”

As some freed slaves opted to migrate from Texas to neighboring states to start their new lives, so did the emancipation day celebrations.

Even without calendar recognition, Juneteenth is commemorated around the United States with festivals, barbeques, picnics and family gatherings.

During those observances, attendees often seized the opportunity to reflect on the past and appreciate the sufferings endured so many years ago.

Native born in Texarkana, Texas, Anthony Wade, operations and plans specialist, Operations and Training Division, Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, gave his firsthand memories of what Juneteenth meant to him and some of the ways he celebrated the event during his youth.

“Juneteenth was celebrated (to commemorate) the signing of the (Emancipation) proclamation. Texas was the last state to recognize the proclamation, (so) we were celebrating the fact that African-Americans had (finally) received the freedoms that everybody else in the country was afforded.

“I was a teenager and we (had) a horse riding club,” Wade recalled. “What we (did) in our club was to (have) a trail ride; at the end of the ride, there were activities (similar to) the same things that are done today throughout the state.

“(Although) Juneteenth was centered around June 19, it was not considered a holiday back then,” Wade said. (Some of the activities we participated in) were speeches, different groups put on performances, and of course, we cooked out and (many) other things.”

Wade admitted he no longer participated in the same activities because he has not found any celebrations of Juneteenth in the local area.

“I do (still) recognize it,” Wade added. “And, I know that my family back home still participates in (all) the activities.”

According to the website juneteenth.com/, Juneteenth was finally declared a state holiday in Texas, Jan. 1, 1980.

Currently, 43 states formally recognize Juneteenth Independence Day.

The state of Georgia was the 37th to pass Juneteenth legislation by the state senate, which occurred in 2011.

Maryland, the home state of abolitionist Fredrick Douglass, was the most recent to join the ranks, passing the bill a little more than three weeks ago.

The remaining seven states not honoring the commemorative day are Arizona, Hawaii, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah.

Although the day is recognized, it has not passed congressional legislation to be officially placed on the calendar. Efforts are being made to garner support for Congress to do so.