Juneteenth: 150 Years Ago, Black America Got Its Own Independence Day

What better way to celebrate the start of summer than marking the day when the last slaves in the nation gained their freedom?

Official Juneteenth Committee in Austin, Texas, June 19, 1900
Official Juneteenth Committee in Austin, Texas, June 19, 1900 Courtesy of Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

In 1865, enslaved Africans on Galveston Island, Texas, had been declared free two years earlier but didn’t know it. With the United States still divided over the institution of slavery and recovering after the Civil War, members of the Confederacy weren’t eager to spread the word.

Only after Union soldiers, led by Major Gen. Gordon Granger, worked their way South for more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation did word reach Galveston Island. On June 19, 1865, known as Juneteenth—a melding of the day’s month and date—the last remaining slaves in America were declared free. Juneteenth, America’s “second Independence Day,” is now celebrated around the country. It is officially observed in 43 states and is a state holiday in Texas, home of the last to know.

There are conflicting explanations for the more than two-year delay of the news that slavery had ended in Texas. Among the possible reasons: Plantation owners withheld the news; federal troops allowed the delay so that slave owners could reap one final cotton harvest before the Emancipation Proclamation—which was issued on Jan. 1, 1863, to free the slaves in the Confederate South—was enforced; and a messenger who was on his way to Texas to deliver the news was murdered. Adding to the issue that made Texas the last holdout was that Union troops never made successful inroads against the Confederacy in that state.

Whatever the reason, June 19, 1865, is regarded as the day all enslaved people in the nation were finally free. “There were many emancipation days prior to June 19, 1865, in other states, but each of those days celebrated freedom while Texas still had enslaved people,” Galveston native Sam Collins tells The Root. “Galveston, Texas, represents the last place enslaved people were freed after the Civil War. It’s the day slavery finally ended everywhere in the United States, and we should celebrate that day.”

Collins, a descendant of those slaves, is using preservation to ensure and protect his ancestors’ place in history. In 2005 Collins bought Stringfellow Orchards, a plantation once owned by Confederate soldier Henry Martyn Stringfellow. In the years since, he has worked to preserve the property and has become a local Juneteenth champion, hosting an annual Juneteenth celebration on June 13 that featured Ruby Bridges, who in 1960 became the first African-American child in the nation to desegregate white elementary schools.

Collins remembers riding his bike past Stringfellow Orchards and being warned not to enter its grounds. Now, as owner of the former plantation, he is preserving the property while preserving history. Collins is chairman of the Texas Historical Commission State Board of Review and is on the board of advisers for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He and his wife also worked to have the Stringfellow house listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The property has been featured on PBS’ This Old House and on HGTV’s If These Walls Could Talk.

“We must never forget what Juneteenth meant to the former enslaved people,” he says. “Some people still suffer today in various forms of bondage; Juneteenth is a celebration that may give those people hope that they, too, may one day be free.”

The announcement that Gen. Granger read—General Order No. 3, declaring “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves”—brought with it rights: the right to assemble, to marry and to worship, as well as the right to work for pay. At Stringfellow Orchards, that meant double the going rate. Stringfellow paid his men—black and white—$1 a day versus the normal 50 cents. The legacy of that decision is still felt today, according to Collins.

“The economic impact of Stringfellow’s dollar-per-day wage is still felt today by descendants of Frank Bell, one of the black men who worked there,” he says. “They still own land bought by their ancestor with those wages.”