Scores of Americans come together yearly to commemorate Juneteenth, the day that those who were enslaved in Texas were finally told that slavery was over. From parades to pageants, historical site visits and more, the 19th of June has become a rallying cry not just to celebrate the end of slavery in Texas but the entire United States.
More than 150 years have elapsed since the first Juneteenth, and as the years have passed, more and more is being learned and discovered about the history of freedom for Black Americans and Juneteenth.
Here are five things you may not have known about Juneteenth.
Nearly half a million people of African descent living in the United States were free before 1865.
Free people of color also made up ten percent of the population of Black people living in America and largely lived near cities like Philadelphia or New Orleans and can be found in records such as early as the first federal census in 1790.
Those who were captured during the transatlantic slave trade, and later their descendants who were shipped to the Deep South, constantly sought and fought for their freedom through self-emancipation or by becoming fugitive slaves. Some escaped to states where slavery was not legal, like Ohio, and others went as far north as Canada into places like St. Catharines, Ontario to live their lives out as free people without restriction.
One of the largest self-emancipation efforts in the United States can be tied to the large number of Black men, and some women, who served in or serviced the Union troops during the Civil War. While the Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved people who were in rebel states, the act of enlisting in those states was still against social norms, highly risky, and an act of rebellion against the system of slavery.
General Gordon Granger conveyed the news of the official end of slavery in the United States through General Order No. 3 on June 19, 1865. But slavery was not officially off the books in the legal sense for another six months.
The 13th Amendment was passed by Congress on January 15, 1865, but it wasn’t ratified by the number of states needed to make it a law until December 6. In fact, the state of Mississippi didn’t officially ratify the 13th Amendment until 2013.
The enslaved were free under the Emancipation Proclamation, 13th Amendment, and General Granger’s order, and yet they still faced more restrictions.
Granger put out an additional circular, or notice, a little more than a week after Juneteenth, urging the formerly enslaved to “remain with their former masters, under such contracts as may be made for the present time.”
Although this was done to ensure that the crop that had been cultivated that year did not fail, it still likely stung, as the newly freed could not actually quickly live out what had been dreamed of for generations.
The contracts referred to by Granger were those in care of the newly established Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was a government entity whose duties included creating and managing labor contracts between former slaveholders, landowners, and the formerly enslaved to ensure that the recently emancipated, known as Freedmen, would be compensated for their labor.
The Bureau also operated hospitals, schools, provided rations, clothing, presided over courts, and more during the critical early years of Reconstruction.
Additional terms of the second notice from General Granger included the fact that the formerly enslaved were not allowed to freely travel without a pass, similar to what was required during the slavery era, for those who wanted to travel, even just from plantation to plantation.
When the Battle of Palmito Ranch took place on May 13, 1865, it was more than a month after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee and the death of President Lincoln.
It took scores of Union troops to secure the victory. And the 62nd Infantry of the US Colored Troops, initially organized as the Missouri Volunteers, was part of the effort.
More than 200 men in this regiment took part in sealing the defeat of the Confederacy that led to Juneteenth. One of these men was a formerly enslaved man named Comodore Givins.
Comodore was born about 1838 in Cooper County, Missouri. Upon his enlistment, he was noted as “claimed by Alex Givens.” Alex(ander), Comodore’s former slaveholder, died almost a year before Comodore mustered into the Union troops on November 29, 1863. This means that Comodore was an asset of Alexander’s estate at the time of his enlistment.
Comodore was listed on Alexander’s estate inventory in December 1862, was the oldest man, and the person with the largest monetary value, equivalent to more than $10,000 today.
It was definitely a risk for Comodore to leave his enslaving location to enlist. Missouri was split right down the middle when it came to who they supported during the war, operating two governments, one rebel and one union, as the battle ensued.
The 62nd Infantry of the United States Colored Troops went on to do more to add to their place in the history books.
In 1866, both officers and enlisted men pooled their money and resources and joined with members of the United States Colored Troops 65th Infantry to lay the groundwork that created Lincoln Institute in Jefferson City, Missouri. They raised $5,000, (equivalent to more than $89,000 today) to jump-start the effort.
The mission of Lincoln was to be an educational institution for newly freed Black people. It’s still in operation today, under the name Lincoln University, and has an enrollment of nearly 2,500 students.
As all of these facts show, Juneteenth was such a critical moment in American history. And it’s important to stop and reflect on what it meant not just for Black Americans and the history of freedom, but for everyone, for the generations who lived before it, those who lived through it, and those who have come since.
Connect With Your Family Stories
Just as there are things we can continue to discover and learn about significant historical events, there are stories in our own family histories that perhaps hold surprises for us.
Is your favorite bit of family lore true? What were the details that surrounded it?
About the author: Nicka Smith is a professional photographer, speaker, host, Ancestry® consultant, and documentarian with more than 20 years of experience as a genealogist. She has extensive experience in African ancestored genealogy, and reverse genealogy, and is expert in genealogical research in the Northeastern Louisiana area, and researching enslaved communities. She is a past board member of the California Genealogical Society (CGS) and the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California (AAGSNC). You can learn more about her here.