News your connection to The Boston Globe

Better late than never for Juneteenth

Juneteenth Day commemorates June 19th, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and ended two and a half years of white resistance to President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation by issuing a general order that said:

''The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves'' and that the new connection between former masters and slaves would now become one between ''employer and hired labor.''

It has been a state holiday in Texas for the last quarter-century and some other states in both the North and South observe the day. President Bush, the former governor of Texas, issued a White House greeting for the day. In Boston, activists and politicians are trying to get Governor Romney's attention for a state holiday.

Still, the day is not known all that much beyond the realm of African America. Even in his gracious greeting, Bush glossed over some complicated history. Bush said, ''The joyous news of freedom did not reach Galveston, Texas, until two and a half years after emancipation when Major General Gordon Granger arrived and announced that the Civil War was over and all slaves were free.''

Slaves and slave owners had indeed heard of the Emancipation Proclamation, said Alwyn Barr, a professor of history at Texas Tech University and author of ''Black Texans: A History of African Americans in Texas, 1528-1995.'' There is evidence that some slaves fled to Mexico or to Indian territory in Oklahoma. The general problem was that Texas, as some historians have noted, was the ''dark corner of the Confederacy,'' receiving relatively little attention by the Union army during the Civil War. The Union took Galveston in 1862, but Confederate forces retook it in 1863.

''When the Union took Galveston, some slaves escaped to the Union army, but after that, the major escape routes for slaves to escape to the Union army weren't even close,'' Barr said over the telephone yesterday. ''When Granger appears in Galveston and reads his proclamation, he's confirming to white Texans that slavery really is over.''

Even after Granger arrived to help the Union put its foot down, which sparked celebrations by black people, his June 19th proclamation did not have a universal impact. ''Word goes out from Galveston across the state, but Texas is a big place,'' Barr said. ''Most of these slaves were agricultural workers and some of the slave owners held on to them through the fall of '65 to harvest cotton, corn, and sugar. There are stories of a few slave owners holding on to their slaves as slaves into 1866 and 1867.''

The moral of the story as to why Juneteenth Day should be remembered is because it represents the duality of a United States. It is a nation where proclamations of liberty take longer than they should to become reality, and yet, it is always better late than never. ''To the people in Texas, it was the day when something really happened,'' Barr said.

In a parallel universe of liberation, amplified by the coincidence of newspaper coverage on Juneteenth Day, the Episcopal Church elected its first woman to be presiding bishop. If confirmed, Katharine Jefferts Schori of Nevada will become the first woman presiding Bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion in its 472 years since the Church of England broke away from the Vatican.

The Episcopal Church is only three years removed from its stunning election of its first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Jefferts Schori voted for Robinson. It was a case of one liberation begetting another. In a reaching out to bishops who disagreed with the elevation of Robinson, she wrote: ''We are slowly learning that God gives gifts to us in the most unlikely guises - people we find it hard to like, people with whom we disagree profoundly, and people we would rather ignore or marginalize. We are also learning that we can only be a real community if we're willing to be faithful to our best and deepest understanding of the truth.''

You could say the similar things about the need for America to reconcile itself by understanding the meanings of events like Juneteenth Day. The election of Jefferts Schori and the interest of African-Americans in cementing celebrations of Juneteenth Day are connected by a common thread. For the people often ignored, it was a day that something really happened.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives