After Juneteenth: The Promise of Freedom in Post-Emancipation Texas

*Abridged Remarks Prepared for the Museum of the Coastal Bend’s 2015 Juneteenth Commemoration*

“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 the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” — General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865

150 years ago, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and declared, on June 19th, the formal end of slavery in Texas—and the freedom of 250,000 enslaved Texans—with his “General Order Number Three.”

Juneteenth commemorates emancipation in Texas, but it has also become a national celebration, the single largest of emancipation in the United States. Nothing else compares. We don’t commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation or the end of the war or any other single event like we do Juneteenth.

So what does it mean? What do we take away from the holiday? And how does the history inform our commemoration? How was emancipation effected? What did the aftermath of Juneteenth look like?

The historical celebration of Juneteenth reminds us that a proclamation is one thing, and reality, another. The rise of Juneteenth as a national holiday has been as much about celebrating the past as it has been about sustaining hopes in the present and future. And so, in a way, the celebration of Juneteenth reminds us that freedom wasn’t a single event effected on a single day, but a process. And so, here, I’d like to look a little bit at that process. What came after Juneteenth?

Wars have messy endings. The surrender of Confederate forces in the Civil War—which was itself a rather more complicated process than our memories of Appomattox suggest—raised as many questions as it settled. In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln said that the war was fought for a “new birth of freedom.” By that measure, only when the war had ended had the battle truly begun.

Emancipation was the beginning of another kind of struggle, but even emancipation came much more slowly and unevenly than our celebrations of Juneteenth sometimes suggests. If emancipation was effected relatively swiftly in Galveston after General Granger’s proclamation, for the rest of the state, as historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner put it, “history records a ragged version of emancipation.”[1]

Popular depictions of Texas slaves knowing nothing of the war certainly applied to some, if not many, Texas slaves, but most probably knew a little bit, and they know that the war had been going poorly for the South. They would have welcomed it. They knew that a Union victory would break slavery apart.[2] “We sure didn’t want the South to win,” said Texas freedman William M. Adams.[3] Martin Jackson, who was born into slavery in Victoria County, said of the Union, “I wanted them to win and lick us southerners.”[4]

And many slaves knew of the end of the war and the coming of emancipation long before Granger came to Galveston. “We knowed what was goin’ on in [the war] all the time,” Texan Felix Haywood, recalled.[5] One freedman, J.W. King, of Washington County, remembered that slaves would creep up to his master’s house and crouch below open windows to overhear news of the war that they would share with others.[6] Abram Sells remembered the old men “whispering right low and quiet like” about they would do when the war was over.[7]

Granger’s orders were printed immediately in the Galveston papers and wired to towns and cities across the state. For many, news would have arrived within hours. For others, news would have to filter out onto the state’s farms and plantations.

Many remembered their masters reading them the proclamation granting them freedom. General Order Number Three brought jubilation. “Everybody went wild,” Felix Haywood remembered. “We were free. Just like that, we were free.” He remembered that “We were all walking on golden clouds.”[8]

But the Order wasn’t always so freely shared. Steve Robertson lived on a large plantation near Brenham, in Washington County. He said his master didn’t share the news. He and other slaves, he remembered, heard about it through “the grapevine,” through the “whispers” of slaves. Robertson said, “we heard about this freedom thing but don’t know what to do about it. The master didn’t set us free so we were befuddled.” He knew that freedom was supposed to have come, and his master knew that freedom was supposed to have come, and yet it hadn’t. Robertson and his family had to physically run away, long after they had learned that they were legally free. They became sharecroppers for a nearby land owner.[9]

Some masters waited until after the fall harvest. Some waited as long as they could. Six months after Juneteenth, in October, 1865, provisional governor A.J. Hamilton said “there are some sections of the State remote from any Military force where I am informed late Slave owners stoutly deny the power of the Gov’t to free the Negroes and who still claim and control them as property in two or three instances have recently bought and sold them as in former years.”[10]

Susan Merritt, from Rusk County, said that she didn’t hear about emancipation until September, when a government official came with a “big book and a bunch of papers” asking why Susan and others were still unfree. He gathered Susan and the others together and “read the paper telling us we were free.”[1] Josie Brown, who was born in Victoria in 1859, said that she and her fellow slaves lived another “whole year” in bondage before an army officer (Brevet-Major Louis H. Sanger) arrived to make “the white folks turn us loose.”[11]

Many masters begrudged their slaves their freedom. When John Mosley’s master informed him of the Orders, he jumped in delight. His master fired a pistol at his feet and told him not to. In Huntsville, a mounted white attacker interrupted a public celebration by cutting a black woman nearly in half with a sword. In Crockett, slave patrollers whipped a hundred celebrating freedmen.[12]

Freedom then, was, as Turner said, “ragged.” But 50,000 Union troops came to Texas after Juneteenth and they enforced Granger’s General Orders and slavery slowly collapsed.[13]At the beginning of 1866, it was very nearly eradicated.[14] It wasn’t always neat, and it wasn’t always immediate, but Juneteenth brought the end of slavery in Texas.

So what followed? Was there to be, as Lincoln said, a “new birth of freedom,” however late? Or would it be stillborn? The black scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois described reconstruction by writing, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”[15] Even 100 years later, the American civil rights movement would have to fight for rights denied in the aftermath of emancipation. But freedom was real. The end of American slavery was perhaps the most transformative moment in the history of the United States. It was an obviously transformative moment for those who experienced it.

Josie Brown was born in slavery in Victoria in 1859. Almost eighty years later, she could still recall seeing slave auctions. “I saw children too little to walk from their mammies sold right off the block in Woodville [Texas]. They was sold just like calves.” Race-based “chattel” slavery and all of its worst debauching cruelties were legally ended. But what then? What would freedom actually look like?

For all of the broken promises of Reconstruction, some basic fundamental freedoms were won most immediately, most profitably, and most permanently. Black Texans fulfilled the promise of emancipation immediately through the reunion of families, they built an institutional foundation for mobilization through the establishment of churches, and cultivated a new class of leaders through education.

The domestic slave trade broke up untold numbers of enslaved families. The first touching acts of freedom saw many freedpeople reuniting shattered families. Separated parents and children and siblings and spouses searched for one another.[16] They turned to Freedmen’s Bureau Agents and newspapers and church networks to relocate lost relatives. Not all were successful, but many were. Freedom could be quite basic, and fundamental.

Meanwhile, independent black churches were quickly established. As Wednesday’s tragedy at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston reminds us, the black church has been a cornerstone of the black community. It offered a rare haven from the oppressive world of the segregationist South and a forum for black leaders to speak freely and openly to black congregations. It is no accident, for instance, that so many civil rights leaders—Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Martin Luther King, Jr.—were preachers. Slaves had typically worshipped in white churches or on plantations under the eyes of white masters. “On Sunday we didn’t work. We had church meeting,” the Victoria-born slave, Josie Brown, recalled. “But they had to have it in the yard, so the white folks could see the kind of religion expounded.” Now, this pillar of black life was liberated. Blacks could worship freely. It was perhaps the rare instance of black southerners willingly removing themselves from “white” life.

Months after Juneteenth, in September, the Freedmen’s Bureau finally arrived and sent agents throughout the state to help freedpeople transition to freedom. They helped former slaves decipher labor contracts, navigate the legal system, and enter politics. But perhaps most importantly, they established schools. Black literacy—which had been largely forbidden under slavery—skyrocketed. The aftermath of Juneteenth saw touching scenes: 70-year-old freedmen might attend classes with, and read from the same reader as 7-year-olds. As Frederick Douglass put it, education was its own form of emancipation.

But if the unshackling of black Texans wrought wonderful and fundamental gains, Granger’s Juneteenth orders were perhaps as notable for what they accomplished as for what they did not. General Order Number Three, for instance, had read not only, “All slaves are free,” but also, “This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.” Emancipation failed to win “absolute equality.” The freedom of political citizenship, of economic independence, of protection from violence: all were either won and lost or never truly gained.

Freedom was circumscribed by violence. The Union occupation, which was never enough to protect 250,000 freedpeople, quickly dissipated, leaving former slaves exposed to brutality. “Lots of Negroes were killed after freedom,” a Texas freedwoman recalled, “bushwhacked, shot down while they were trying to get away.”[17] “The war may not have brought a great deal of bloodshed to Texas,” noted Elizabeth Hayes Turner, “but the peace certainly did.”[18] The formal battles ended in 1865, but the violence endured.

Victoria was occupied from 1867 to 1869. A Freedmen’s Bureau agent noted that local whites “seem to be jealous of the freedpeople, especially those that make a good living, and are able to dress their families decent, and educate their children.” Race relations were always tense. Former Confederates—“half-grown rowdies”—might harass or exploit freed blacks, who were forced to operate in an unfriendly world.[19]

In 1868, Major General Joseph Reynolds lamented his inability to protect emancipated Texans. He reported, “The murder of Negroes is so common as to render it impossible to keep an accurate account of them. … The official reports of lawlessness and crime, so far from being exaggerated, do not tell the whole truth. … [The state was overrun with] armed organizations, generally known as ‘Ku-Klux Klans’ … Citizens of other states cannot appreciate the state of affairs in Texas without actually experiencing it. … the bold, wholesale murdering in the interior of the State seems at present to present a more urgent demand for the troops than Indian degradations.”[20]

If freedpeople were insecure in their persons, they could hardly have expected to maintain their newly won political rights. Suffrage is a hallmark of democracy, and, in the aftermath of the war, Union occupations (as well as the Fifteenth Amendment) ensured that black Texans won the right to vote. And vote they did. They elected black leaders to the state legislature and to local offices. Black sheriffs, justices of the peace, and mayors dotted Texas. If you go today to the state capitol, you will see in each chamber pictures of the legislators throughout history. Suddenly, in the 1860s, you begin to see black faces. And then the numbers drop. By the 1900s, you don’t see any. Political rights were won and then lost. Violence and intimidation, on top of structural limits, suppressed black voting. In 1902 and 1903, Texas Democrats passed a poll tax and the “white primary,” devastating the black voting pool. 100,000 Texas blacks had been voting as late as the 1890s. By 1906, 5,000 were.[21]

If freedpeople failed to find a haven against violence or keep newly won political rights, neither did they win the prosperity they expected. “We knew freedom was on us, but we didn’t know what was to come with it,” said a former slave from Bexar County, Felix Haywood. “We thought we were going to get rich like the white folks.” In fact, he said, “We thought were going to be richer than the white folks, because we were stronger and knew how to work, and the whites didn’t, and we didn’t have to work for them any more.” But it was not to be. “It didn’t turn out that way,” he said. “We soon found that freedom could make folks proud but it didn’t make them rich.”[22] The abolitionist Frederick Douglass said of the emancipated slave, “He had neither money, property, nor friends.  He was free from the old plantation, but he had nothing but the dusty road under his feet. … He was turned loose, naked, hungry, and destitute to the open sky.” One Texas slave recalled that “freedom could make folks proud, but it didn’t make them rich.” James Boyd’s master crashed his slaves’ celebration of freedom and asked, “How you going to eat and get clothes and such?”[23]

Slaves received no freedom dues. They received no forty acres and they received no mules. “They didn’t even give us a hoecake or a slice of bacon,” recalled Minerva Bendy of Woodville, Texas.[24] Most freedpeople were illiterate, had few non-agricultural skills, and, often lacked the resources to do anything other than return to their former masters and work the same land they had worked before. Even Granger’s short proclamation said that Freedmen “are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages.” Some refused. Andy Anderson’s master asked him to say. Anderson said, “Like Hell, I will,” and fled to work for someone who had not owned him. Others fled to cities, in places such as Houston’s Third Ward, doing whatever they could to survive, and sometimes practicing trades, receiving educations, and building comfortable lives for their families. But most slaves stayed. They worked for their former masters. They had no choice. All they had was their labor. They had no tools, no land, no seed. They entered into sharecropping contracts, working mortgaging a share of future crops in return for the basic requirements of survival. They were condemned to poverty.

On June 4, 1965, Lyndon Johnson delivered the commencement address at Howard University in Washington D.C. He knew his history. He knew the burdens of emancipation and the failures of freedom. “Freedom is the right to share, share fully and equally, in American society,” he said, “But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. / You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” After Juneteenth, black Texans found that they had gained their freedom. But, perhaps, as Johnson said, freedom was not enough.

Juneteenth allowed for wonderful progress and it allowed for tragic failure. But the battle would endure. Throughout its history, Juneteenth has worked not only as a commemoration of freedom gained, but as a symbol for freedoms to be won, it has represented something to strive for, something to measure against. Juneteenth provided, as Henry Louis Gates put it, “a past that was ‘usable’ as an occasion for gathering lost family members, measuring progress against freedom and inculcating rising generations with the values of self-improvement and racial uplift.”[25] Celebrations, sermons, barbecues, games, parades: they kept the memory alive. The memory of jubilation, and the memory of a dream deferred.

While white southerners gloried in their Confederate heritage, black communities held parades and barbecues and celebrations and remembered. They purchased plots of land, such as Houston’s Emancipation Park in 1872, and commemorated struggle. And they took memories with them. When black Texans migrated across the country in the twentieth century, they brought Juneteenth with them.[26] They made a state holiday a national one.

What are we to make of the celebration of Juneteenth? Martin Luther King Jr., in what is probably the most famous speech in American history, his “I Have a Dream” speech, called emancipation a “promissory note.” He said it was “a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. … But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. … One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. … It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But if the check bounced, as King said, still it was carried forward and the promise behind it was not forgotten. Emancipation sparked a century of remembering. The long memory, the promise of emancipation, of Juneteenth: still it lived. Juneteenth was about a promise, no less than a reality. And it still is.


Juneteenth History on the Web:

Gregory P. Downs, “The Hidden History of Juneteenth” (

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “What Is Juneteenth?” (

W. Caleb McDaniel, “Before Juneteenth: The Emancipation Proclamation in Texas” (



[1] Turner, “Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory,” in Cantrell and Turner, Lone Star Pasts, 147.

[2] Campbell, Empire, 246.

[3] Campbell, Empire, 247.

[4] Jackson, WPA Slave Narratives, Texas.

[5] Downs, “The Hidden History Of Juneteenth,”

[6] Campbell, Empire, 246.

[7] Campbell, Empire, 247.

[8] Powell, Texas, 159.

[9] Robertson, WPA Slave Narratives, Texas.

[10] Andrew Johnson, Papers of Andrew Johnson, 263.

[11] Campbell, Empire, 249.

[12] Campbell, Empire, 250.

[13] Downs, “The Hidden History Of Juneteenth,”

[14] Campbell, Empire, 249.

[15] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction.

[16] In Texas, see Couch, Couch, The Dance of Freedom, 42.

[17] Turner, “Juneteenth,” 147.

[18]  Turner, “Juneteenth,” cited by Caleb McDaniel, “Before Juneteenth”

[19] Couch, The Dance of Freedom, 42.

[20] Major General Joseph Reynolds, Texas, November 1868, from War Department, Annual Report of the Secretary of War, Volume 1, 705.

[21] Downs, “The Hidden History Of Juneteenth,”

[22] Powell, Texas, 159.

[23] Campbell, Empire, 250.

[24] Campebll, Empire, 251;

[25] Gates, “What Is Juneteenth?,”

[26] Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, 240.