Freedom Days: Juneteenth and the Process of Emancipation

by Elizabeth R. Varon | | Thursday, June 18, 2020 - 18:51

On June 16, 2020, Virginia Governor Ralph S. Northam declared Juneteenth a state holiday in Virginia, noting that it “commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas, the last of the former Confederate states to abolish slavery, and recognizes the significant roles and many contributions of African Americans to the Commonwealth and the nation.” It is indeed long overdue for American society to celebrate Juneteenth as an official holiday, for the date marks not only a singular event in Texas history—the Union army’s liberation of Galveston on June 19, 1865—but also the long process of emancipation and the longstanding, intricate tradition in African-American communities of celebrating, as annual “freedom days,” the hallmarks of that process. Juneteenth signifies that while legal freedom was announced in measures such as Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, de facto freedom could begin to materialize, during the Civil War, only with Union military victories and Confederate defeat. Juneteenth as a holiday does not supersede other freedom days—it channels their energy and meaning. This essay seeks to shed light on how Juneteenth emerged as the preeminent freedom day, and why it, and not the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, has come to symbolize, here in Virginia and across the nation, the end of slavery.

In the fall of 1935, the Chicago Defender, America’s most influential black newspaper, ran a piece entitled “Emancipation Day: When Is It?” The piece began with a description of a Juneteenth celebration in Texas, an event that featured a band and a parade. The author, Roberta Clay, then moved on to contextualize Juneteenth among the many other “dates commemorating the freeing of the slaves.” Those dates included January 1st, for Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation; September 22nd, the date of the preliminary emancipation proclamation of 1862; August 1st, which signified the 1834 abolition of slavery in the British West Indies; and April 3, marking the 1865 Union liberation and Confederate evacuation of Richmond, Virginia.  Prominent among these freedom days was April 9: the date of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia in 1865. Blacks who celebrated that date, Clay observed, did so in recognition of the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation was only an unfulfilled promise “as long as the Confederacy stood.”

Appomattox loomed especially large for black Virginians, as it had layers of symbolic significance. It was the day many enslaved Virginians first learned they were free or were able to experience freedom for the first time. It was a day of black liberation at the hands of black liberators: seven different regiments of the United States Colored Troops participated in the Appomattox campaign. And it was the day the principle institution of the Confederacy, Lee’s army, met it demise. In defeating Lee, on Virginia soil, in the state where American slavery had first begun, African American troops dealt a death blow to all that that army stood for. “Servitude” was a “corpse . . . wrapped in the rebels’ fallen stars and broken bars for a shroud” and “buried at Appomattox,” as the 1892 narrative of William Walker, who had been a slave in Virginia, put it. Moreover, Grant’s magnanimous surrender terms, intended to effect Confederate repentance, held out the promise of racial reconciliation.                                

“Surrender Day” festivities began in southern Virginia as early as 1866. Blacks in Mecklenburg County, on the border with North Carolina, commemorated April 9 because, as they saw it, “if Lee had never been beaten…the [emancipation] proclamation would have been to no avail.” The date had resonance for black communities well into the 20th century. For example, a notice published in the Baltimore Afro-American, for the 1905 “Surrender Anniversary” in Burgess, Va., promised that “the affair will be an elaborate one and many societies will participate.” Such Appomattox anniversary celebrations were not restricted to Virginia. On April 9, 1914, the black congregation of Philadelphia’s Miller Memorial Baptist Church gathered to celebrate the surrender as a freedom day, marking the occasion with a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, the singing of spirituals, and the presentation of lectures on “the progress of the race.” In 1925 black Chicagoans in the prominent civic organization the “Appomattox Club” held their annual April banquet to mark “the dooming of slavery in America” and their “progress since Appomattox.”

 But in the first decades of the 20th century, Appomattox gradually faded as a freedom day, in the face of bitter contests over its meaning. Ex-Confederate advocates of the Lost Cause creed seized Appomattox as a symbol and held it hostage, claiming that it signified Lee’s nobility in defeat; the survival of Confederate principles and their eventual vindication; and the North’s promise, in the form of Grant’s lenient terms, not to threaten the South’s racial caste system. While blacks invoked Appomattox to signify the hopes for peace, ex-Confederates used it to conjure violence, claiming that Northerners, in granting civil rights to former slaves, broke the Appomattox compact, and that the old order must be restored. In the face of such white Southern defiance, some black commentators concluded Grant had been too lenient, and that the South had never accepted defeat. Decrying “lynching, disfranchising, intimidation, and the present effort of eliminating almost wholly Negro education,” a writer in the Baltimore Afro-American lamented in 1902 that white Southerners had revived a conflict that “we imagined we had won at Appomattox.”

The eclipse of Appomattox, however, did not signify the eclipse of the freedom days tradition, but instead a new phase. As evocations of Appomattox dwindled in black discourse, Juneteenth began to emerge, nationally, as the most important festive marker of freedom. The Juneteenth commemorative tradition reflected the experience of slaves in the southwestern theater of the Civil War, where there was sporadic combat after Lee’s surrender. The date of June 19, 1865 marks the liberation of Galveston, Texas, the last major port in Confederate control, by the Union army under General Gordon Granger. Granger promulgated General Orders No. 3, informing Texas slaves of the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, and thus belatedly granting them freedom. In the years after the war, Texas freedpeople celebrated this moment of liberation with elaborate festivals, and civic groups began purchasing land where the celebrations could be held; for example, citizens of Mexia bought a ten-acre plot for their Juneteenth events, and designated the site “Booker T. Washington Park.” The Juneteenth tradition soon spread to Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and beyond.

The black press in the northeast covered such events, sometimes taking note of regional variations; “it seemed strange to Northern and Eastern visitors,” the New York Amsterdam News opined in 1936, to see emancipation “celebrated this time of year.” Like other emancipation festivities, Juneteenth lost momentum in the middle decades of 20th century, as the generations of former slaves and Civil War veterans passed from the scene, and as new forms of protest and cultural expression emerged. But unlike Appomattox, Juneteenth experienced a dramatic revival, as a consequence of the modern day Civil Rights movement. In 1968 the Poor People’s March organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Council, the Urban League and other civil rights organizations culminated with a massive Juneteenth rally in Washington, D.C. And in 1973, the Revered C. Anderson Davis, former president of the Houston NAACP, began a campaign to revive Juneteenth as “Emancipation Day” in Texas and establish it as a state holiday. As the historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner has explained, “the civil rights movement accomplished what all the years of Juneteenth celebrations could not”—it “legitimated black history.” What had once been a southwestern tradition captured the national imagination. Texas declared Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980, and eventually dozens of other states and the District of Columbia followed suit (mostly in the 2000s), recognizing Juneteenth as an official state holiday or observance.

 In some sense, Juneteenth represented an alternative to Appomattox, as a day free of the interpretive strife associated with Lee’s surrender. But at the same time, Juneteenth as a historical moment shares some of the symbolic power, for the freedom struggle, of Appomattox. Juneteenth celebrations typically have featured readings of the Emancipation Proclamation and have extolled the leadership of Abraham Lincoln, the role of the Union army in actuating emancipation, and the heroism and sacrifices of black soldiers; thus Juneteenth represents, as Lee’s surrender once did for blacks, a counter-memory to the Lost Cause tradition. Both moments, coming as they did long after the Emancipation Proclamation, speak, too, to the depth of slaveholder treachery (in withholding the news of emancipation), and the reality of freedom deferred.

Local and regional freedom day traditions will and should persist, not as rivals to Juneteenth but as context for it. Charlottesville’s recent adoption of March 3 as “Liberation and Freedom Day,” marking the 1865 date when Union troops entered the city and liberated its enslaved population, is such a date on the road to Juneteenth—and by recognizing them both, we signal that emancipation as a process was not uniform or linear or inevitable. At the same time, it is absolutely essential and long overdue that Juneteenth should become an official federal holiday. By giving Juneteenth primacy among freedom days, as a national holiday, we would affirm our collective commitment to placing emancipation, where it rightfully belongs, at the heart of our national memory of the Civil War, and our commitment to fulfilling, at long last, the promises of freedom and justice.   

Images: (1) “President Lincoln Riding through Richmond, April 4th, 1865” (courtesy Library of Virginia); (2) Emancipation Day Parade in Richmond, April 3, 1905 (courtesy Virginia Commonwealth University Library).

Sources: Much of this essay is excerpted from my chapter “The Last Hour of the Slaveholders’ Rebellion: African American Discourse on Lee’s Surrender” in Caroline E. Janney, ed., Petersburg to Appomattox: The End of the War in Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018); extensive footnote documentation is provided there. For some representative sources, see The Chicago Defender, Sept. 14, 1935; Thomas S. Gaines, ed., Buried Alive (Behind Prison Walls) For a Quarter of a Century: Life of William Walker (Saginaw, Mich.: Friedman & Hynan, 1892), p. 208; Mitch Kachun, Festivals of Freedom: Meaning and Memory in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003); W. Fitzhugh Brundage, The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belkap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005); Baltimore Afro-American, July 12, 1902 and March 18, 1905; Philadelphia Tribune, April 18, 1914, and April, 18, 1925; Elizabeth Hayes Turner, “Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory,” in Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas, Gregg Cantrall and Elizabeth Hayes Turner, eds. (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007), William H. Wiggins, Jr., O Freedom! Afro-American Emancipation Celebrations (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987) and “Juneteenth: A Red Spot Day on the Texas Calendar,” in Juneteenth Texas: Essays in African-American Folklore, Francis Edward Abernethy, ed. (Denton, Tx.: University of North Texas Press, 1996); New York Amsterdam News, June 27, 1936; Chicago Daily Defender, June 17, 1968; Baltimore Afro-American, June 22, 1968; Washington Post, June 19, 2009.