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Juneteenth: Emancipation Memories

Juneteenth, officially celebrated on June 19, commemorates the day in 1865 when Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas with news that the Civil War had ended and American slavery had been abolished. Though President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation over two years prior, the executive order had no effect on this remote area of the US. From Texas, Juneteenth celebrations spread throughout the South. Though there was a decline in these celebrations due to economic and racial barriers at the beginning of the twentieth century, the civil rights movement brought renewed attention to Juneteenth, which became an official Texas holiday in 1980 and is now celebrated by diverse groups nationwide.

Many of the narratives in DocSouth's collections "North American Slave Narratives" and "First Person Narratives of the American South" recount stories of liberation and struggles for freedom. In particular, William H. Robinson's narrative, From Log Cabin to the Pulpit, or, Fifteen Years in Slavery, recounts the experience of being freed by Union troops while traveling with his master, a Confederate soldier. He goes on to describe how he accompanied these Union soldiers to his home in Greenville, Tennessee. After his mother is freed, Robinson and the troops begin traveling to each of the nearby plantations, bringing news of emancipation. Soon, the troops are followed by a caravan of former slaves with wagons full of luggage and furniture.

Also, in the autobiography Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington recalls a Union officer reading the Emancipation Proclamation on the Virginia plantation where he lived. He describes how his mother cried tears of joy and told her children "what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see" (page 21).

Visitors interested in reading more "freedom" narratives should browse "The North American Slave Narratives" collection, which documents the individual and collective story of African Americans' struggle for freedom and human rights in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Jennifer L. Larson