Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, is an annual holiday in fourteen states. Celebrated on June 19, it commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas. The holiday originated in Galveston, and for more than a century the state of Texas was the primary home of Juneteenth celebrations. Since 1980, Juneteenth has been an official state holiday in Texas. Thirteen other states list it as an official holiday as well, including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Alaska, and California.
The Snoddy Family Reunion -- the most recent of which is described elsewhere in this issue -- is held every other year in June, and when possible it encompasses Juneteenth. Of course the basic purpose of the gathering is to provide a time and place for family members to come together, but it is also affords an opportunity to reflect on family history, and to pray together as a group, giving thanks to God for their freedom...something that many of us take for granted.
The following article appeared in the Longview (Texas) News Journal for Saturday, June 19, 2004, and is reprinted here by permission:
Juneteenth: Fact and fable of Texas slavery
By Van E. Craddock
Today is Juneteenth, and it seems like a good time to talk about Old Gabe.
Gabe was a slave who belonged to my great-great-great-grandfather, Jimmie, who brought his family (and a dozen or so slaves) to East Texas in 1833.
As early as 1829, Mexico had declared all slaves in Texas free. Plantation owners convinced Mexican officials to rescind the order, declaring that Texas couldn't be developed without slaves. Slavery thrived in the South because the soil was rich and well-adopted for growing cotton, tobacco and other crops.
By the time of the 1835-36 Texas Revolution there were 5,000 slaves among the 38,000 residents of Texas. By 1860, the year before the Civil War began, the state had more than 180,000 slaves. That represented 30 percent of Texas' total population. Because of the slavery question, many Americans had opposed the Republic of Texas' attempts to join the United States. Texas' proposed annexation was the major issue of the 1844 U.S. presidential campaign.
Frederick Douglass, the famous abolitionist (and one-time slave) noted that Southerners early on saw that Texas "would be a delightful spot to curse with slavery ... Mankind thinks that whatever is prosperous is right." In the 1840s there even was a proposal to divide Texas into two states (East and West), with the former a slave state and the latter a free state.
Slaves in Texas were simply personal property to be bought, sold and hired out. Most worked in the fields but others were household servants and craftsmen. Since their unpaid work produced a hefty profit for their owners, slaves were valuable assets. Slaveholders generally made sure their slaves were adequately fed, clothed and housed. After all, slaves worked from sunup to sundown. A sick laborer couldn't pick his share of cotton or properly attend to the livestock.
Plantation families liked to project the image of "kindly" owners. Typical of the idealized "Old South" is a Texas newspaper article that appeared in 1933.
Written to commemorate the 100th anniversary of my great-great-great-grandfather's arrival in Texas, the prepolitical correctness article is titled: A Mighty Big Heart
The article begins by explaining that Gabe, a shoemaker, had a 16-year-old son who lived on an adjoining East Texas plantation. That owner had sold his land and was taking his slaves far away.
Gabe was heartbroken at the thought of losing his boy, the newspaper story says. He came up to the edge of the porch (where ancestor Jimmie and his oldest son, Albert, sat in the shade).
“What's the matter, Gabe?”
“Colonel Henderson is leavin’ tomorrow and is takin’ my boy,” Gabe said. “Oh Lord, I can’t stand it. Please buy him now. If they take him way out there, the wild Indians will get him sure.”
“I haven't the money to buy him, Gabe,” said Albert.
Father Jimmie had been listening to the conversation. He got up, went into the house and returned in a few minutes with a bag filled with silver dollars. He told Albert to saddle his horse “...and take this money and go down to Colonel Henderson’s and buy that boy.”
The newspaper article goes on to that say Jimmie “...had been a slave owner for more than fifty years, and always treated his slaves kindly. They were well fed, well housed and had the best of medical attention when sick.”
Jimmie’s tale, or at least a similar story, was handed down for decades in many households throughout the South. Somehow, the “peculiar institution” of slavery is easier to talk about if we tell ourselves the slaves were treated just like members of the family.
But I suspect most of us know better.
Slavery formally ceased on June 19, 1865, more than two months after the end of the Civil War, when Union troops arrived at Galveston and announced that Texas’ slaves were free.
President Abraham Lincoln had issued his Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, but news moved slowly back then. To be sure, East Texas slave owners were in no hurry to pass along the information to their free labor.
This weekend, thousands of Texans will celebrate Juneteenth, which became a state holiday in 1980. Interestingly, Juneteenth now is celebrated in states throughout the South and beyond. In May, New Jersey became the latest to make the date a state holiday.
Van “Freeman” Craddock’s e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Links to Juneteenth: