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June 15th, 2009
Freethought San Marcos: Juneteenth a Texas celebration that has become a national holiday

Freethought San Marcos: A column

Few people who are not African-American celebrate Juneteenth, but the Texas celebration of the emancipation of slaves has grown to become a holiday in nearly two-thirds of the states. For more than a century, the celebrations were confined mostly to Texas, though the small community of Wilmar, Arkansas, has had a Juneteenth celebration since about 1870.

The celebration started in Galveston when Texas slaves first learned that they had been emancipated by presidential decree. On June 19, 1865, Union general Gordon Granger read an order about the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston:

“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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

At the time, there were about 250,000 slaves in Texas. The word spread slowly from Galveston to all of the slave-holding plantations in Texas, but the date of June 19–blended into Juneteenth–became the date of celebration and remembrance of the freeing of Texas’ slaves. Ten years before word of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas, there were at least 517 slaves (according to the tax rolls) living in Hays County, with about 1600 in the Hill Country counties (source: Cultural Encounters with the Environment).

Before the Civil War, Ezekiel Nance moved to an area west of Kyle on the Blanco River, which he named “Little Arkansas,” where he and his sons and slaves built a dam and many other structures–a house, smokehouse, slave quarters, carriage house, and a separate house for the eight boys in the family. Later he built a blacksmith shop, tenant houses, and a one-room schoolhouse and chapel. During the Civil War, Nance operated a cotton textile mill that produced cloth for the Confederacy, and he supplied beef, as well. In 1863, Nance’s slaves fenced several thousand acres of his 10,000-acre land holdings. I have found no reports about when his slaves were released, but Nance applied for and received an amnesty for his service to the Confederacy from President Andrew Johnson on May 23, 1865, a month after the end of the Civil War, so presumably he knew of the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation (which took effect on January 1, 1963) before Juneteenth, 1865 (source: The Handbook of Texas Online).

Charles H. Bolden, an employee with the Department of State since 1986 and a San Marcos native, wrote this about slaves in San Marcos and Juneteenth:

“History has indicated that early African Americans who arrived in Hays County and San Marcos came as slaves. It is believed that in 1855 the Berry-Durham School was the first in Hays County where African Americans were permitted to attend. Many learned to read by studying the bible. In fact churches and religion played a very important role in the life of African Americans during those early years in my hometown and into today.”

“After the Civil War, Congress passed a law that created the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was the bridge between slavery and freedom. On June 19, 1865, many in San Marcos learned that President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation declaring all slaves to be free. It was Union General Gordon Granger who brought the news of freedom to Texas slaves and it was his order that required all 22,000 slave owners in Texas to free the estimated 200,000 slaves to include those in Hays County. We refer to this date as Juneteenth and it is a huge celebration in my hometown even today. This is our day of freedom. Many blacks prefer to celebrate Juneteenth as a day of freedom instead of July 4, because on July 4, 1776, we as African Americans were not free in the south. We the people did not include us.”

As a relative newcomer to San Marcos–I’ve lived here for twenty-five years–I have been aware that there is a small African American population (around 5%) here. I once assumed that there may have been no history of slavery in or around San Marcos. I’ve learned differently, and that knowledge has helped breathe new life into Juneteenth for me.

Equally surprising to me is that 31 states and the District of Columbia have recognized Juneteenth as either a state holiday or state holiday observance: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming. Texas declared Juneteenth an official state holiday in 1980.

Most Juneteenth celebrations include the singing of the Negro National anthem, as it is often called–“Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson–the first verse of which is the most well-known:

Lift every voice and sing,
‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.
For those who have never celebrated Juneteenth, I hope that this year they will have a better understanding of the importance of this day not only to African Americans, but to all who appreciate the freedoms that are supposed to be guaranteed by our Constitution. While Juneteenth may have extraordinary meaning for African Americans, it should also have special meaning for all who love freedom.
© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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