The Juneteenth flag was designed by activist Ben Haith in 1997. Photo from CNN.
By Terrance Turner
June 19, 2020 (updated June 19, 2021)
On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers, led by General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas, with some game-changing news.
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” Granger read. “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,” Granger continued, quoting General Order Number 3. (That order was found on June 18, 2020, by staff at the U.S. National Archives. According to the Washington Post, the order was found in a formal order book stored in the Archives headquarters building in Washington, D.C.)
The “Executive”, President Abraham Lincoln, had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863 — two and a half years earlier. But the news didn’t reach the slaves until 1865, for reasons that are still unclear. (In December of that year, the 13th Amendment was passed, outlawing non-penal slavery nationwide.)
The slaves reacted with shock and jubilation to the announcement, according to Juneteenth.com. Many of them moved to Houston; the city’s black population more than tripled, per documents in the Library of Congress. One of those freed slaves was Jack Yates, who moved to Houston within days. According to ABC 13 Houston, Yates came to Houston and worked hauling freight. He became a Baptist preacher. He was the first pastor of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church — Houston’s first black Baptist church. In 1872, he and three other men bought several acres of land for Emancipation Park, on what was then Dowling Street. (It is now Emancipation Avenue.) The four men bought the park so that they (and other black people) could celebrate Juneteenth.
Rep. Al Edwards (D-TX) authored a bill to make Juneteenth a state holiday in 1979. Surprisingly, Texas Monthly reports that Edwards met with resistance from fellow blacks in his quest to make Juneteenth a holiday. One state representative, Clay Smothers of Dallas, dismissed Edwards’ bill as proposing nothing more than “ceremoniously grinning and bursting watermelons on the Capitol grounds.”
Despite the resistance, Edwards persisted, and House Bill 1016 was passed by the Texas Legislature, making Texas the first state to officially commemorate Juneteenth. (Now every state recognizes the holiday except Hawaii and North Dakota.) Juneteenth became an official state holiday on Jan. 1, 1980. Now, 40 years later, there is a growing movement to make it a national holiday. That push has gained steam after a string of police killings (most notably George Floyd) and the death of Edwards from natural causes in April. He was 83.
UPDATE (June 19, 2021): Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, signed into law by President Joe Biden. Present at the signing ceremony on Thursday was Ms. Opal Lee, who lobbied for the occasion to be federally recognized. Lee launched a memorable effort at the end of President Obama’s second term.
In 2016 (at age 89!), Lee walked from her home in Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C. in an effort to have June 19 become a federal holiday. (She later clarified to Variety that she didn’t walk all 1400 miles. “I did some hundreds,” she said, “but not 1,400.”) Nevertheless, she persisted. From September 2016 to January 2017, Lee traveled the country, marching in cities that invited her to take part in their Juneteenth festivities. “I went to Shreveport and Texarkana, Little Rock and Fort Smith, Denver and Colorado Springs,” she recounted. “I went to Madison, Wis., Milwaukee, Atlanta, the Carolinas. I was all over the place.”
Ms. Lee, now 94, was in attendance during the ceremony. She was lauded by Vice President Kamala Harris, who had sponsored a Juneteenth bill while in Congress. “And looking out across this room, I see the advocates, the activists, the leaders, who have been calling for this day for so long, including the one and only Ms. Opal Lee,” Harris said.