Not being a native Texan, the Juneteenth holiday was problematic for me as I didn’t understand the cause for celebration. This meant there was nearly two extra years of slavery for Texas blacks. While researching the documentary film ‘Lone Star Holy War,’ we happened on some compelling details about Texas history and Juneteenth that opened my eyes to the profound significance to all Texans.
As troubling as our collective past happens to be, let us look backward to the United States, mid-19th century.
The Emancipation Proclamation was signed on 23 Sept 1863, but word did not get to Texas until 1865. The following words are from a document called General Order #3 and were read from the stairs of the Osterman Building on Galveston Island.
THE PEOPLE OF TEXAS ARE INFORMED THAT IN ACCORDANCE WITH A PROCLAMATION FROM THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, ALL SLAVES ARE FREE. THIS INVOKES AND ABSOLUTE EQUALITY OF PERSONAL RIGHTS AND RIGHTS OR PROPERTY BETWEEN FORMER MASTERS AND SLAVES.
-Maj. General Gordon Granger – June 19, 1865
Slavery in Texas has a complicated history. Its range and depth and complexity are, frankly, hard to pin down with a compendium of facts. There was 181,000 persons of African descent living in Texas as the start of Civil War— and, about 99 percent of theme= were enslaved. Although only one in four Texan owned multiple slaves, free black labor was essential to the Texas economy.
Some historians believe that Texas — more than any other location in the Confederate States of America (C.S.A.) — had a significant number of whites against slavery.
TEXAS, I AM YOUR FATHER!
General Sam Houston won the battle of San Jacinto securing a rarefied status as the ‘father’ of the new Republic. Despite that nine of every white Texans emigrated from the South, the great General Sam Houston opposed the extension of slavery. Houston became governor of Texas in 1859 running on a pro-union/anti-slavery platform and defeating Mississippi native Hardin Runnels.
In January of 1861, a convention was called to determine the ‘secession’ matter; and, the Texas legislature took up the issue. It is interesting to note that the vote was for secession, but not for joining the CSA. On March 2, 1861 a second convention was held. A referendum supporting the secession ordinance was passed. Texas joined the C.S.A.
And great drama ensued. The Legislature demanded that every member declare public allegiance to the C.S.A. When Houston’s name was called, he refused to swear this allegiance. At this point, factions within the State declared the governorship of Texas…’vacant.’
THE PAIN OF WAR
After the firing on Fort Sumpter — the opening military salvo of the war— the 2700 Federal troops in Texas were made prisoners-of-war. The state— and the government — was equal parts hope and turmoil.
By 1862 the C.S.A initiated an unpopular draft…perhaps, even a conscription.
Many union supporters gathered their families and moved to the North to either fight for the union or evade the draft. Others hid out and were joined by C.S.A. deserters.
By the late summer of 1863, just before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, so many Texas soldiers were deserting, that CSA General John Bankhead Magruder contacted the governor and asked for direct intervention to stop the tide of men who were simply walking away.
Denton and Wise counties became home to so many deserters that people loyal to the CSA became terrified at the influx of pro-union supporters.
In Cooks Country, 40 white men were hanged for being union sympathizers.
PALMITO RANCH AND THE BIRTH OF JUNETEENTH
The last land battle of the Civil War was fought on 13 May 1865 at Palmito Ranch (12 miles east of Brownsville.)
This battle was fought by whites, blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics, (The black soldiers were from the 62nd infantry, U.S. Colored Troops and the white soldiers from the Indiana 34th regiment.)
The undisputed irony is that these men died for no military cause as General Lee had surrendered at the Appomattox Courthouse six weeks earlier.
It was at Palmito Ranch that many Texans first learned of the capitulation of Jeff Davis (C.S.A. President) and Robert E. Lee. The sphere and circumstances of life are devalued during war. Humanity is diminished. Everyone suffers.
On June 19, 1865 General Order #3 was read. One can only imagine the depth of the emotion felt by everyone present. Not only was the war over, chattel slavery was— as a legal matter— over for the 181,000 blacks who could now be called, Texans.
Perhaps it is time for a different narrative of the Juneteenth celebration.
The Juneteenth Holiday should be beyond color and race, holding up a level of aesthetic symbolism for every person aspiring to embrace the idea of being a ‘Texan.’
The Juneteenth holiday should represent a day of closure– a day of reflection and interpretation — a day from which everyone chooses to move forward and shape a different reality focusing on ways we are similar. Through the evocative prism of the Juneteenth holiday, can we see the guiding light of justice, fairness and humanity to light the path forward— for every person aspiring to be a Texan.