Juneteenth is the annual day of celebration started 135 years ago by former American slaves. As soon as the Civil War was over, almost all of the slaves in the South were freed – but not those in Texas. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation was effective on January 1, 1863, the Texas slaves were not released until 1865. One year later, they began their celebration of freedom and called it “Juneteenth”, the shortened version of June 19th.
During the War, slave owners uprooted their families and made the long trip to the West. They believed that they could keep their slaves even if the South lost the Civil War if they lived in Texas. When it became obvious that the Union was going to win, they packed all of their furniture and other possessions onto wagons. Along with their family members, they took supplies, basic equipment, and, of course, their best-working and favorite slaves. Frequently the rest were sold. The adult slaves walked, herded like the larger animals, while the children rode in covered or open wagons. At night, a few of them might have the room to sleep in the wagons, but most slept on the ground on the side of the road during a trip that often took grueling months to complete.
Former slaves described what happened: Henry Lewis, from Texas, reminisced: “Dey sent de papers down on March 3rd dat said dat us was free. But dey didn’t turn us loose den. Dis was de las’ state to turn de slaves free. When dey didn’t let ’em go in March, de Yankee sojers [soldiers] come in June and make ’em let ’em go. Dat how come us take holiday on Juneteenth.” Melinda Pollard also remembered: “I was set free June 19, 1865. De slave owners in Texas wanted to git deir crops done befo’ de slaves was set free an’ lef’. Guess dat’s why my cousins in Georgia don’ celebrate Juneteenth like us does.”
In come cases, the slave owner made the trip (or paid an overseer to do so) while family members took care of the home plantation. Sometimes they completely abandoned their land, especially if their homes had been burned by Union soldiers. Mintie Maria Miller: “Dey brought us to Texas on a ox cart. My sister go on the wagon to go, too, an’ Marster said, ‘Adeline, you can’ come. You got to stay here with Mistress.’ Dat’s de last I ever seen my sister. She was four years old den. It took us three months to come to Texas on de ox cart. I don’ know how far we come in one day, but it sure was tiresome. … When de white folks in Louisiana an’ Mississippi knew dey wasn’ goin’ to win de War, dey sold as many of deir slaves as dey could. Dey brought some of de slaves from New Orleans an’ sold dem in Houston. I heard dem say one time dat dey sold a hundred in one day. … Mr. Johnson bought a man an’ woman an’ three chillun ’cause he could get ’em cheap. … When de War was fought in Galveston, you could hear de guns an’ cannons by goin’ out in de backyard. Den one day de marster told us we was free. I went to Houston with my mother. Dere was a old colored woman who was a slave. Her marster was name’ Johnson, too. When de War come, her marster set her free an’ give her a house an’ some land. Dere’s where we went after freedom. … A lot of people stayed with her.”
Ever-increasing numbers of Juneteenth festivals are being celebrated in cities throughout America and are attended by people of many heritages.
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