By Allen D. Payton
During the Antioch Juneteenth Celebration event a few years ago, I shared the fact with a few people, mainly youth, in attendance, that Juneteenth and the ending of slavery in the U.S. was the result of the efforts of the Republican Party, and some of them were shocked and even argued with me. I was surprised they hadn’t learned that in their history classes in school. So, here’s a little history about the day and celebration.
Deriving its name by combining June and nineteenth – Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day, is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. But while it became a national holiday in 2021 through a bill by a Democrat U.S. Senator and signed into law by Democrat President Joe Biden as the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, the day it celebrates occurred thanks to the Republican Party. Known as the Grand Old Party or GOP, the party was formed in 1854 to fight the expansion of slavery into the Western territories and ultimately abolish it. Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican to be elected president and under his leadership fought and won the Civil War to end slavery in the United States.
It’s the main reason the first Black U.S. Senators and Members of Congress were Republican, virtually all Black Americans voted Republican until the 1936 and the GOP continued to receive a large percent of the Black vote well into the 1950s and 1960s. A few other facts you might find surprising is that it was Republicans who founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on February 12, 1909, the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth and reparations were originally a Republican idea. It was Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman who issued Special Field Orders No. 15, giving 40 acres of land to freed slave families and later ordered the army to lend mules for the agrarian reform effort, as a means to provide for themselves and own an asset to pass on to future generations. It was reversed by Democrat Andrew Johnson, who became president following Lincoln’s assassination and issued a proclamation that returned the lands to southern owners.
Back to Juneteenth, it was on June 19, 1865 that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, a Republican career U.S. Army officer, arrived at Galveston, Texas announcing that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free.
It was a little over two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox, Virginia, setting in motion the end of the war. A wave of Confederate surrenders followed. As a practical matter, the war ended with the May 26 surrender of the Department of the Trans-Mississippi, but the conclusion of the American Civil War lacks a clear and precise historical end date. Confederate ground forces continued surrendering past the May 26 surrender date until June 23.
It was two and a half years after President Lincoln signed his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 freeing all slaves in Confederate states. Granger issued General Order No. 3 further informing Texas – the most remote state of the former Confederacy – of, and enforcing the proclamation, just two months after Lincoln’s assassination.
When issued, the Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. However, with the arrival of Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.
Later attempts to explain this two-and-a-half-year delay in the receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years. Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another, is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All of which, or neither of these versions could be true. Certainly, for some, President Lincoln’s authority over the rebellious states was in question For whatever the reasons, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory.
Juneteenth has been celebrated in Texas since 1866, at first involving church-centered community gatherings in Texas. They spread across the South and became more commercialized in the 1920s and 1930s, often centering on a food festival. Participants in the Great Migration brought these celebrations to the rest of the country.
Happy Juneteenth, a holiday of freedom that we can all recognize and celebrate, while honoring those who fought and died to make it a reality!
Information also sourced from Juneteenth.com and the book From the Deck to the Sea: Blacks and the Republican Party.