Juneteenth observances celebrate emancipation

By STACEY ADGER | Special to the Metro Monthly

When President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, it set forth that all slaves, the approximate 3 to 4 million on American soil, were free.

In areas of the United States which were still under rebellion, that freedom for countless slaves, would be delayed. The motives surrounding President Lincoln’s penning of the document are still debated today; did he want to free slaves out of some deep moral conviction or was it done to punish slave holding states who had seceded from the Union?

The Proclamation had no teeth; it was not a law passed by Congress and even if it was, who was there to enforce it? The nation was in the grip of a bloody Civil War, as Union troops swept through areas, they would liberate slaves but to what? Just as the planters and owners lost their labor force, the slaves lost food, shelter, clothing and a future of uncertainty. But what happens if you find out, more than two years after the end of slavery, on paper, that you were actually emancipated years before?

It is called “Juneteeth,” and marks the forceable end of slavery in the state of Texas, one of the last states to abolish the practice.  On June 18, 1865, 2000 Union troops, under General Gordon Granger, arrived in Galveston and delivered General Order No. 3, which set forth that all slaves are free, declaring personal rights and the rights of property between former master and slaves. The freedmen were supposed to continue working, however, for wages. They were admonished that idleness would not be condoned. The announcement was met with jubilation among the former slaves and became an annual observance.

Years later, as part of the Federal Writers’ Project under the WPA, people were sent out to interview former slaves about their recollections of that “peculiar institution.” One such interview was with “Prophet” Kemp of Daytona Beach, Fla.  He recalled being a slave on the plantation of John Gay, who he termed one of the meanest plantations owners in Mississippi. He recounted the beatings, the lack of food, long hours and the outright cruelty of the owner and the overseers he employed. He told the writer that Gay feared the impending freedom of his slaves and ordered his overseers to keep all visitors away. Word did reach General Granger of the conditions at the plantation, and on May 8, 1865 the 100 plus slaves were freed.

“Juneteeth” is celebrated to some extent today.  In the early part of the 1900s, African Americans would hold observances, generally under the auspices of the church. While some communities hold gatherings, festival or educational/social consciousness activities, in other communities largely ignore it. Observances have been held in Warren and Youngstown over the past several years.

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