Juneteenth marks the day, June 19, in 1865 when General Gordon Granger of the United States Army arrived in Galveston, Texas and informed enslaved people of African descent that they were free. Ironically, the date of this last declaration of freedom is the emancipation holiday most often celebrated today. (For more Juneteenth history, resources, and events, check out our Juneteenth 2021 webpage!)
Beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, African Americans gathered to celebrate. Susie King Taylor, who served as a laundress and nurse, with the First South Carolina Volunteers (later the 33rd United States Colored Troops) included a detailed description in her memoir of one of the first emancipation celebrations:
On the first of January, 1863, we held services for the purpose of listening to the reading of President Lincoln’s proclamation…and the presentation of two beautiful stands of colors…It was a glorious day for us all, and we enjoyed every minute of it, and as a fitting close and the crowning event of this occasion we had a grand barbecue. A number of oxen were roasted whole, and we had a fine feast. Although not served as tastily or correctly as it would have been at home, yet it was enjoyed with keen appetites and relish. The soldiers had a good time. They sang or shouted “Hurrah!” all through the camp, and seemed overflowing with fun and frolic until taps were sounded, when many, no doubt, dreamt of this memorable day.
In honor of Juneteenth, here are a few documents in the American Civil War Museum’s collection associated with emancipation and its celebration.
Once President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, word needed to be disseminated. General Orders No. 1, issued on January 2, 1863 was distributed to officers of the U.S. Army to help spread the news. The Proclamation that Susie King Taylor heard may have been read from a similar document.
A year after the emancipation celebration described by Taylor, a similar celebration took place in Florida to “mark the anniversary of the Proclamation of Emancipation.” This letter from the Freedmen of St. Augustine served as an invitation to Captain Durgan of the 7th New Hampshire Volunteers to attend a celebration on January 1, 1864. It was to feature “several addresses” on the plaza and a “dinner in the Hall at the Court House at 1 P.M.” Of specific note is the signature. Although the chairman of the committee, Monroe Robinson, issued the invitation, he was unable to write it. Being illiterate, he signed with his mark, an X. This is not surprising since it was illegal to teach a black person to read or write.
One final document in our collection demonstrates the continued desire to celebrate freedom. This illustration from Frank Leslie’s, published on February 3, 1877, depicts African-American men gathering near Capitol Square in Charleston, South Carolina for a procession celebrating emancipation on January 8. Most of the men are dressed in military uniforms, but of particular note is the fireman near the center of the drawing. He is carrying a fireman’s trumpet similar to the one on display in the Museum’s “A People’s Contest” exhibit. In the years immediately following the Civil War, African Americans made use of their new found freedoms to establish volunteer fire departments, fraternal orders, benevolent societies, banks, schools, and businesses.
Regardless of how you choose to celebrate Juneteenth, take a moment to contemplate the long, continuing struggle of African Americans for freedom.