During the Month of May we memorialize and honor those fallen and injured soldiers of past wars. What were the soldiers fighting for? Freedom!! After that we sashayed into the month of June celebrating that hard fight for Freedom…by observing Juneteenth. It is one of the oldest celebrations of the abolition of slavery in the world. The first celebration took place in 1867.

During the 1960s the day became less celebrated because blacks were clamoring for integration. Blacks did not realize that integration without freedom is of no value. By 1970 the truth hit home that in order to integrate one must be free from the constraints and bondage from within as well as outside forces. Blacks began to celebrate again, especially in Texas.

June 19, 1865, was a day worth remembering and celebrating. There was much jubilation and much sadness on all sides. The plantation owners were crying and yelling about the destruction of the economic foundation of the South. Some of them were saying that their slaves were happy with things as they were. They could not understand why anything had to be changed. Be mindful now this is two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

After the reading of Article 3 on the steps of Galveston there were shouts of jubilation from the slaves. That jubilation must have been short lived as the truth of the hour surfaced. The hostile force was even more deadly now that the slaves were considered equal. Everyone on and around the courthouse steps heard these words read by Col. Granger, “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. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes, and work for wages.”

Many of the slaves could not read or write, and Thomas Jefferson stated “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people... They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” These freed people were turned out with nothing: no education, no money, no house, no food supply, no clothes except the clothes on their backs, no protection from the local government, and yet they were expected to bargain for fair wages. Even though free they were still up against the power that had held them in captivity for hundreds of years. The few who were capable of speaking truth to power were in the North, because the South was not a safe place to be for anyone who was speaking about freeing and educating the slaves. For the Texans this would destroy the economic foundation of the South.

Many have asked why did it take two and a half years for the slaves in Texas to get word that they were free? Researchers have come up with four reasons for the delay, and I am sure there are many more. 1.) Messenger was killed on his way; 2.) The news was deliberately withheld to maintain the labor force; 3.) The federal troops did not enforce the order to give the plantation owners time to reap one more harvest; 4.) For some it was believed that President Lincoln’s authority over the rebellious states was in question.

For whatever the reasons, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was legal, reasonable or sensible; Even though the Civil War had officially ended, many hurt Southerners were not pleased with the outcome and wanted the war to be fought all over again. Therefore, Lincoln had no choice but to send in 2,000 Union Troops as a means to protect Col. Granger, who was the carrier of the message.

The ones who actually needed the protection of the U.S. Government were the freed slaves. Records have stated that the jubilation was unbelievable and many slaves just started walking north even though they had no one to greet them or place to stay after getting there. Various reports state that bodies of dead slaves were strewn along the roadside after having been killed by white Texans who wanted them to remain enslaved.

In the 1970s African Americans’ renewed interest in celebrating their cultural heritage led to the revitalization of the holiday throughout the state. Because of a hard fought battle by 1980 Texas led the trail and on Jan. 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator. The successful passage of this bill marked Juneteenth as the first emancipation celebration granted official state recognition.

Blacks had a hard time finding a place to celebrate since they owned very little. They were denied use of public facilities for the Freedom Celebration. However, they did not let that deter them. Many groups opened their church facilities to the public. Most of the festivities were held out in rural areas around rivers and creeks that could provide for additional activities such as fishing, wading in the water, etc. As years passed, eventually African Americans became land owners, land was donated and dedicated for such a time as that.

Many ask how is it celebrated? Juneteenth almost always focused on education and self-improvement. Dress was also an important element in early Juneteenth customs and is often still taken seriously, particularly by the direct descendants who can make the connection to this tradition’s roots. Dress is important because during slavery there were laws on the books in many areas that prohibited or limited the dressing of the enslaved. During the initial days of the Emancipation celebrations, there are accounts of former slaves tossing their ragged clothing into the creeks and rivers in order to put on clothing taken from the plantations belonging to their former “masters.”

Let us continue to celebrate freedom for all as we jubilantly sashay into July, when we can all marvel in the glory of how great it is to be not only a free country but a free people within a free country. Let America be America to All.

Willie Mae Samuel is a playwright and a director in Rome. She is the founder and director of American Connection for the Performing Arts Inc.

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