Editorials, Opinion

W.Va.’s first official Juneteenth

“Emancipation Day.”

“Freedom Day.”

“Juneteenth Independence Day.”

Tomorrow, West Virginia celebrates its first officially recognized Juneteenth after the Legislature passed SCR 4 in March recognizing June 19 as Juneteenth Day, and after Gov. Jim Justice on Thursday declared it a state holiday.

Juneteenth commemorates the day Gen. Gordan Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, technically freeing the last of the slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation had been signed two years before, but the lack of Union soldiers’ presence had made Texas a safe haven for slaveholders.

However, on June 19, 1865, about two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Granger read aloud General Order No. 3 in the town square, declaring: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

The first Juneteenth was celebrated in 1866, and its observance continued through the late 1800s and early 1900s. But, as Juneteenth.com notes, the rise of school learning over homeschooling and the industrial revolution led to decreased celebrations. In schools, textbooks whitewashed the importance of June 19 right out of history, acknowledging only the Emancipation Proclamation. In urbanizing cities, where factory jobs drew in former agriculture workers, white bosses didn’t want to give their Black employees the day off.

Juneteenth saw a resurgence during the 1950s and 1960s as civil rights took the national stage before fading to the background again. The protests after George Floyd’s murder brought Juneteenth back into the spotlight as people rallied around Black lives and culture.

In a piece for PBS, West Virginia-born Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes about how Granger’s announcement of freedom for the enslaved was largely symbolic. “When Texas fell and Granger dispatched his now famous order No. 3, it wasn’t exactly instant magic for most of the Lone Star State’s 250,000 slaves. On plantations, masters had to decide when and how to announce the news — or wait for a government agent to arrive — and it was not uncommon for them to delay until after the harvest. Even in Galveston city, the ex-Confederate mayor flouted the Army by forcing the freed people back to work.”

But the day itself became something to rally around. The date became representative of all the emotions and memories associated with the end of slavery.

Gates concludes his essay with this: “By choosing to celebrate the last place in the South that freedom touched — reflecting the mystical glow of history and lore, memory and myth, as Ralph Ellison evoked in his posthumous novel, Juneteenth — we remember the shining promise of emancipation, along with the bloody path America took by delaying it and deferring fulfillment of those simple, unanticipating words in Gen. Granger’s original order No. 3: that ‘This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.’ ”