Juneteenth and Texas History

General Granger's Orders Number 3 read at Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865:

The people 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 the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

Granger's proclamation and argument were a two-year-delayed application of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.  Texas was one of the last vast locales to receive the word.  This is why the news was viewed incredulously by black populations in Texas upon its hearing and why the date retains the important Afro-idealist sentiment of a "Texas independence day."  Texas was not a longstanding U.S. state, and her founding was marred with compromises on the keeping of slavery despite Stephen F. Austin's acknowledgment that the practice was "evil."

The date became black Americans' enduring "Texas independence day."  Black Americans often utilized parks and churches across Texas to commemorate this incredible news, and in 1980, Texas was understandably the first state to make it a government holiday.  This is now mimicked by almost all U.S. states, and there is a growing sense of treating it as a national and even international holiday.

Despite its longer tradition in Texas, this year is another culture war theater, as Governor Abbot recently issued an order for preserving the ideals of Texas history, such as those events surrounding the famous Alamo.  The intellectual acidic tensions of critical theory now enter the fray, with a goal of tarnishing Texas history in a manner consistent with the tarnishing of U.S. history.  Academic skeptics say it is a "truer" history, but they have larger political goals. 

In this grand narrative, the Republican Party is essential and inescapable both at the national level and in Texas.  An honest historical reading would acknowledge the driving force of the Republican Party to stop the advance of slavery across the United States.  In Texas, the Republican Party was founded on July 4, 1876, in the aftermath of the Granger declaration.  Granger was removed from his command within six months of his order by Democratic president Andrew Johnson, who opposed the substantial features of emerging black rights.  The first state Republican convention for Texas met in Houston on July 4, 1867, and was predominantly black in composition, with about 150 black Texans attending and twenty Anglos.  The details of this convention were reported in the Tri-Weekly Austin Republican on October 26, 1867.  The final sentence of their declaration has an eerie ring today, describing the former Democratic government of Texas that supported the Confederate rebellion: "we will make no further attempt, by any compromise of our principles, to conciliate the enemies of the National government."

The ongoing intellectual effort to refuse credit to Republicans in their inception and contemporaneous political acts to enact anti-racism is a profound impediment to the current national dialogue on race.  President Biden stated in his 2020 campaign that any black person who did not vote for him "ain't black."  Yet blacks did vote in increased numbers for the president's opponent and the party with a powerful history of fighting racism.  The current president's party secured the greatest growth in support from 2016 among white males: 7 percent.  This support was indispensable to his victory. 

Juneteenth remains more than political; its Christian resonance is also inescapable.  In 1900, the anthem "Lift Every Voice" was sung for the first time.  Its final verse is reminiscent of the Jewish victory over Egyptian slavery found in Exodus 15: 

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.

That God intended blacks to be free in America is an inescapable contention.  President Bush noted the matter vividly from the disembarkment point of many slave ships at Goree Island, Senegal in 2003:

In America, enslaved Africans learned the story of the exodus from Egypt and set their own hearts on a promised land of freedom. Enslaved Africans discovered a suffering Savior and found he was more like themselves than their masters. Enslaved Africans heard the ringing promises of the Declaration of Independence and asked the self-evident question, then why not me?

In the year of America's founding, a man named Olaudah Equiano was taken in bondage to the New World. He witnessed all of slavery's cruelties, the ruthless and the petty. He also saw beyond the slave-holding piety of the time to a higher standard of humanity. "God tells us," wrote Equiano, "that the oppressor and the oppressed are both in His hands. And if these are not the poor, the broken-hearted, the blind, the captive, the bruised which our Savior speaks of, who are they?"

Down through the years, African Americans have upheld the ideals of America by exposing laws and habits contradicting those ideals. The rights of African Americans were not the gift of those in authority. Those rights were granted by the Author of Life, and regained by the persistence and courage of African Americans, themselves.

As a Texan and former Texas governor, Bush was versed in the importance of Juneteenth.  He acknowledged the holiday as president.

Juneteenth is a time for all Americans to think about what we will do with our freedom.  What risks are we willing to take among those who would deny it?  For black Americans in Texas on June 19, 1865, and the many days that followed across the state, it was both a joyous and a perilous time to imagine a world outside bondage.  Black Americans in Texas rose to that occasion and formed a government rejecting the former Confederate government of Texas.  Their memory is more than sufficient to inspire us all again today. 

Dr. Ben Voth is an associate professor of rhetoric at Southern Methodist University and the author of four academic books on related matters, including his most recent 2021 book: Debate as Global Pedagogy: Rwanda Rising.

Image via Public Domain Pictures.

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