The Story of Juneteenth: Myths that Evoke Pride but Require Engagement by Derickson K. Lawrence 

The celebration of Juneteenth was a pivotal marker of freedom for enslaved Blacks in 1865 and beyond.

However, the idea that the slaves were freed two years before, via the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863- the executive order of its day, and the news of freedom took that long to then be announced by General Granger in Galveston Texas were myths.  

First, Texas as a Confederate state would not have honored the Proclamation from President Lincoln, who had no authority over the state at that time. Texas with the other slave states had seceded the Union and were engaged in the Civil War to preserve their way of life. So, the enslaved population in the Confederate states had not gained their freedom, even if they had gotten news through the whispers that such an order was issued.

Second – the timing of two years. It was more likely that after the State of Texas surrendered to the Union Army on June 2, 1865, General Granger then rode in accompanied by Union troops, with General Orders No. 3, on June 19, 1865. No. 3 simply stated, “The people are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” There was a little more, but that was the gist.

Still, the enslaved population in Galveston at the time was about 1,700 people. It required an arduous stepped approach, a Confederate state-by-Confederate state effort by the Union Army to make the pronouncement of freedom, and then enforce it through the rest of the Confederate states.

Of course, the institution of slavery was not completely abolished for the rest of the nation until the 13th Amendment was ratified at the end of that year – December 6, 1865.

But the states went along with signing the document in exchange for a huge compromise: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

That exception opened the door for a new set of repressive laws known as black codes. Widely enacted throughout the South following the Civil War – a period called Reconstruction- these laws both limited the rights of Black people and exploited them as a labor source via a prison convict leasing system. Wide swaths of industries paid the states to gain access to this leasing system of involuntary servitude – shattering any remaining myths of freedom. 

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” said Mark Twain, a poet of that era. Today’s prison industrial complex; talks of building new prisons in Florida (the 2024 presidential campaign); and the continuing rollback of civil and women rights- especially in the “Red” states; validate Twain’s aphorism. It is also why civic engagement geared towards halting the erosion of those rights, rather than the celebration of a marker of freedom, should be the impetus of Juneteenth.

Derickson K Lawrence is a resident of the City of Mount Vernon. He is the executive producer of the docuseries Americas’ Open Wound: The Killing of the Movement. And is in mid-production with the latest install: Episode 3- Civic Engagement in a Post-Insurrection Environment.