By LENNOX FARRELL
The African-American author, Ralph Ellison, is best known for his novel, Invisible Man. In it, he describes, in an autobiographical manner, an invisible individual who cannot be seen by White people. They walk around him, and he finds his condition of anonymity and invisibility both frustrating and advantageous.
Ellison is less known for another work, Juneteenth. It is more than a novel. It is another name for Freedom Day, or Emancipation; the emancipation of African-Americans. It was not the date, September 22, 1862, when it was announced by then president, Abraham Lincoln, with an effective date of January 1, 1863, but on the date when it was announced in the state of Texas.
The name, Juneteenth, is what is called a portmanteau word; one that carries within itself, like a suitcase, more than one item or part of a word. In this case, the word is a combination of the month, June, and the number nineteenth: June 19, 1865.
In the same way, people in the former British West Indies see August 1, 1834 as Emancipation Day, so is June 19, or Juneteenth, for African-Americans. It is officially observed in most, but not all states.
Interestingly, celebrating Juneteenth was informal for more than a century until Texas began to celebrate it as an official holiday in 1860. In fact, the official ending of slavery had very little effect on the day-to-day life of most slaves, particularly in the Confederate States. Texas was resistant to the Emancipation Proclamation until June 19, 1865.
On June 18 that year, Union General Gordon Granger, with federal troops, many of them Black, arrived in Galveston to take possession of the state and enforce Emancipation. It was called General Order No. 3.
Former slaves in Galveston rejoiced in the streets. It was in the following year that Juneteenth celebrations began. Freed people pooled their money to purchase land. Among these are Emancipation Parks in Houston and in Austin, Texas. Booker T. Washington Park is also located there.
These properties were purchased by African Americans to commemorate and celebrate their significant dates. In Texas the following year, not only did former slaves pool meagre funds to own land collectively, but they also began to gather increasingly in large Juneteenth gatherings. These gathering places, commemorating the same historic ending of legal slavery, had different namings: including Houston’s Emancipation Park; Mexia’s Booker T. Washington Park, and Emancipation Park in Austin, Texas.
It is often assumed that these proclamations ending slavery were immediately and universally adopted and adhered to by former slave-owners and their representatives. This assumption is very incorrect. For example, in the Caribbean, it is because enslaved ancestors would have none of that, refusing to participate in any ‘apprenticeship’ on the same plantations where they had been enslaved that several significant things occurred.
One was the decision by the British to circumvent the determination of the former slaves to bow to slavery by another name, that the British introduced indentureship in which peasants from India were dragooned into servitude across the length and breadth of the Empire. Of course, since with the ending of slavery and its dehumanizing policies that systematically destroyed Black families, culture, language, beliefs, names etc., could not be countenanced, the Indians were allowed ‘rights’ not available to the slaves.
For example, they could keep their names, languages, religious beliefs, etc. These cultural moorings allowed them to rise in short order in status and availabilities above that of the slaves, with significant consequences seen even today. For example, by the beginning of the 19th Century, according to the pre-WWII Moyne Commission’s Report, Indians owned more than one million acres of land in the West Indies.
By contrast, immediately after ending slavery, the British Colonial Office had sent out circulars to all territories with instructions that lands owned by the Crown, which had earlier been available to anyone willing to settle and leverage it, was no longer available without the payment of one pound sterling. Slaves leaving the plantations almost naked and starving could hardly muster funds to purchase these lands, much of which they had brought into cultivation.
In America, too, adherence to these proclamations was not immediate. For example, though Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22 1862, with an effective date of January 1, 1863, it had minimal immediate effect on the day-to-day lives of most slaves, particularly those in the Confederate States. Texas, as a part of the Confederacy, was among those most resistant to the Emancipation Proclamation.
Juneteenth, therefore, commemorates neither September 22 nor January 1, but instead, June 18. And why? It was on this date in 1865 that Union General Gordon Granger made a difference. He was an avowed anti-slavery Irishman, descended from Irish-Catholic ancestors who, centuries earlier, had themselves been shipped into America and the West Indies as slaves.
The English rulers, Protestants, included the likes of Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII, and Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England. General Granger, backed by federal troops with high-ranking Black officers, arrived in Galveston, Texas to take possession of the state and enforce the emancipation of its slaves. On June 19, 1865, while standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, he read the contents of “General Order No. 3”:
This year, try and attend a Juneteenth celebration somewhere in the U.S. The Internet has the dates and other details needed. Among these in nearby Buffalo is Juneteenth of Buffalo, Inc. Headquarters is 1517 Genesee Street, Buffalo, NY, (716) 891-8801.
Bring the children. And the children of neighbours. They need these types of occasions to steel them for a future of sustained struggles and victories.