Remembering Juneteeth

Jun. 22, 2014 @ 04:50 PM

On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas, with a regiment of Union soldiers.

He had a message for the residents of that rebellious state.

In General Order Number 3, Granger wrote:

"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. 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 word of the order spread, as the website describes it, “the reactions to this profound news ranged from pure shock to immediate jubilation.” That expression of jubilation is widely considered to be the first celebration commemorating the end of slavery in this country.

On Saturday, hundreds of Durhamites gathered to note the holiday in an event Phyllis Coley has been organizing for 10 years. Juneteenth, she said, “is all about understanding the significance of this day.” She noted its particular significance in Durham, where the largest contingent of Confederate troops surrendered to Union soldiers more than two weeks after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses Grant at Appomattox.

The news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas, of course, two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the landmark order freeing slaves in the Confederate states.  Historians have speculated on the reasons for the delay – one story has it that a messenger carrying the news to Texas was slain.

Whatever the reason, the delay was a harbinger of the egregious postponement for a century or more before the shackles of legal discrimination against African-Americans were fully lifted.  It was a century of cruelty, mistreatment and subordination of those freed slaves and their defendants.

As President Barack Obama put it this month in a proclamation, “Juneteenth marked an important moment in the life of our nation.  But it was only the beginning of a long and difficult struggle for equal rights and equal treatment under the law.”

As that struggle passes further into history and those who led it pass from the scene, celebrations such as Juneteenth become even more important as moments to recall what we must not repeat. Indeed, the civil rights movement rekindled interest in celebrations of the day, which had declined through the years.

Coley wants not just to remember how ugly slavery was, but to inform our modern understanding.

“We cannot change history,” she said Saturday. “It is what it is. So let’s recognize it, and understand it, and move forward so we don’t repeat it.”

Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of General Granger’s order. Perhaps that would be a great time for this community to undertake the largest Juneteenth celebration yet.  Lest we forget.