Today, the UNC Press blog is happy to offer a guest post from William A. Blair, professor of U.S. history and director of the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at the Pennsylvania State University. In November, UNC Press will be publishing Lincoln’s Proclamation, a collection of essays coedited by Blair and Karen F. Younger that offers new perspectives on the 16th president’s most famous words. In this post, William Blair explains the origins of Juneteenth and the tradition of Emancipation Day celebrations throughout the United States.
Popular practice has deemed Juneteenth as the ultimate black festival. The day commemorates June 19, 1865, when slaves in the Galveston, Texas, area heard a proclamation of freedom read by Union General Granger. There are several ironies about the occasion but perhaps the largest is that Juneteenth had been only a regional observance until its revival in the last several decades of the twentieth century. Before then, it was remembered primarily by residents of Texas and the southwest. Today’s popular practice obscures a much more vibrant and diverse calendar of commemorations of freedom by African Americans, which lasted at least into the middle of the twentieth century.
Juneteenth is only one of many Emancipation Days tied to Lincoln’s proclamation. Beginning with the issuing of the proclamation in 1863, African Americans in the Union-occupied Sea Islands near South Carolina and Georgia gathered in ceremonial events to mark what they hoped was the destruction of slavery. With the end of the war, the pace picked up on these celebrations until Emancipation Day became arguably the most important holiday in black communities throughout the United States.
Wherever African Americans constituted significant proportions of the population, business (at least black-owned ones) stopped for the day as African Americans conducted a parade. They listened to orations from prominent members of the community. A central ritual was the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, a duty considered as a special honor by the reader. Orators used these occasions to highlight the contribution of black people to American civic life and, consequently, press the case for the advancement and protection of their rights.
One historian of these practices counted that at least fifteen different celebrations thrived in black communities around the country. For instance, Lincoln’s proclamation offered two choices: September 22 for the preliminary version and January 1 for the actual. Then there were the days held as sacred—times when black people in a particular region won their liberation. These were often tied either to the appearance of the Union army or the defeat of the Confederate military. Richmond residents marked April 3 when Lee’s army fled the capital, while others preferred April 9, when that army surrendered at Appomattox. And, of course, there was June 19, 1865, when the enslaved at Galveston learned about their freedom.
There were efforts to make the commemoration of freedom into a national, more unified event. In 1980, the dedication of the statue to Robert E. Lee in Richmond prompted one such effort. Alarmed at what they saw in the more militant expression of the Confederate past, black leaders tried to forge a consensus for marking a national emancipation celebration. The effort failed. It was a difficult task, even to choose which day to observe, but more things stood in the way of organizing a national holiday for emancipation, such as lack of Congressional support and racism. Emancipation days continued to be celebrated, although over time they became more and more like community festivals until finally petering out as the Civil Rights movement gained momentum.
However, even if success had come in selecting a day, the widespread celebration of freedom may not have happened. Why do I think so? Because it’s a trick question. We actually have such a day and we do not observe it.
In 1948, Harry S. Truman signed a resolution that designated February 1 as National Freedom Day. It was the cause of Major Richard R. Wright, Sr., a former slave who became a successful businessman in Philadelphia. He chose the date because it commemorated the signing by Abraham Lincoln of the joint congressional resolution that framed the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery in this country. We have an emancipation day in the United States. But if a poll were taken on the subject, it likely would reveal that 99 percent of Americans have no clue that this date of remembrance even exists. There is more publicity for Groundhog Day—the day following February 1—than for the anniversary of the legislation that changed the meaning of freedom in this country.
William A. Blair is also the author of Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914 (UNC Press). To pre-order Lincoln’s Proclamation, as well as other titles scheduled for publication in the fall, please go to the UNC Press website.