According to persuasive folk memories, Union general Gordon Granger read an order at Galveston, Texas on the 19th of June, 1865, to the effect that all previously enslaved people were free. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect, officially, on January 1, 1863. It freed as many as 3.5 million slaves, but existing Confederate governments, state and federal, had refused to acknowledge it. Therefore the arc of freedom had gone forward with the rising fortunes of the Union armies, and Texas—the Confederate state most geographically remote from Washington, D.C.—was one of slavery’s last refuges.
Freedom for Alabama’s more than 435,000 slaves had come in stages as the war swept through the state. Huntsville, a key location in the Tennessee Valley, was occupied twice by Union troops; the second, more conclusive of these occupations took place in the autumn of 1863. Centers of population in south Alabama were largely untouched until the Confederacy came crashing down. On April 12, 1865, the capital city of Montgomery surrendered to General James Wilson, whose forces had previously captured Tuscaloosa and reduced Selma. The surrender of Mobile took place on the same day, following the Confederates’ loss of their fortifications at Spanish Fort and Fort Blakely. In many instances these victories were hastened by the presence of African American troops in the Union armies. Each triumph was followed by memorable feelings of jubilation among the Freed People—who soon faced a new reality of building lives as farmers, craft workers, teachers and students, physicians and lawyers, citizens and public officials. So they lived without the chains of slavery, launching the history of a free people during the uncertain transition known as Reconstruction (1865-1877).
Though Emancipation came at different times in different places, the tradition of celebrating it on June 19th—Juneteenth—goes back as far as 1866. By the 1920s and 1930s, Juneteenth celebrations had taken the form of food/cultural festivals. The observations grew in significance in the 1970s, and by 1980 Texas (appropriately) had become the first to declare Juneteenth an official holiday. Florida followed suit in 1991, Oklahoma in 1994, Minnesota in 1996, and by the end of the twenty-first century’s second decade forty-seven states had declared a holiday on June 19. Alabama enacted its official Juneteenth observances in 2011, and today the date is celebrated by concerts, parades, fairs, educational events, and the gift of free food.
The Bounds Law Library holds several titles that contain historical information on Juneteenth. Among them are Paul Finkleman, editor, Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895, 3 volumes (Oxford University Press, 2006); and Deborah Willis and Margaret Krauthamer, Envisioning Emancipation : Black Americans and the End of Slavery (Temple University Press, 2013).