On June 19th, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger would arrive in Galveston, Tx. and issue General Order No. 3 which proclaimed, “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 rights and the rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.” Incredibly, many Texans and the more than 200,000 slaves there had failed to hear of the Emancipation Proclamation, which had gone into effect Jan. 1, 1863. Texas would make it a state holiday in 1980, and today many states have an official day of observance as parades, picnics, prayer services, and proclamations are all common ways that have come to represent many Juneteenth commemorations.
Many have long championed the cause to make Juneteenth a national holiday. The National Juneteenth Observance Foundation has pushed for official recognition for over 25 years. Likewise, at the age of 90, Opal Lee of Ft. Worth Tx. marched 1,300 miles to Washington D.C. in order to advocate that Juneteenth become a national holiday. When asked why she embarked upon such a journey, she commented, “I just thought if a little old lady in tennis shoes was out there walking, somebody would take notice.”
The late Rev. John L. Edwards Jr. formed the Mary Walker Historical and Education Foundation in part to honor Mary Walker (1848-1969). According to a February 2000 Chattanooga Times Free Press article, she was America's last living slave and reached an age of 121. At the age of 116 she had enrolled in the Chattanooga Area Literacy Movement class and learned to read, write, and perform basic mathematics, and for this she was declared “oldest" student in the nation. This served as a catalyst for the first of Chattanooga's Juneteenth celebrations.
Honoring the contributions of USCT that served during the Civil War has also become synonymous with Juneteenth, and Chattanooga has had movement on this front in recent years. The National Park Service, in collaboration with Bessie Smith Cultural Center and National Park Partners have hosted workshops, presentations and walking tours in order to bring awareness about the roles and contributions that African-Americans had on our community during the Civil War era. One instrumental aspect of these efforts has been to educate the community on the significance of Camp Contraband, which was a makeshift downtown encampment began by thousands of former slaves that served as a vital link in the future growth and development of Chattanooga.
In December, the Unity Group and coalition partners called for proper recognition of the role that the USCT had on our community by holding a wreath-laying ceremony at Chattanooga National Cemetery in their honor and calling for a permanent memorial to be erected in the area where 881 USCT are buried in the cemetery. Units such as the 14th, 16th, 18th and 44th were active participants in the Second Battle of Dalton and pivotal Battle of Nashville which saw the elimination of Hood's Army of Tennessee as an effective fighting force. The 42nd USCT were entrusted with laying out the design of the cemetery and burying the dead.
While Juneteenth is rapidly becoming a time to celebrate, we should not forget that it is an occasion to commemorate. We should remember the struggles and sacrifices that were necessary to achieve freedom and pray for a just and lasting peace. Remarkably, we were reminded of this on just a few weeks ago as the last slave ship to arrive in America, the Clotilda, was rediscovered under Mobile Bay. In the present we must be cognitively aware of this past for it is not yet so far away.
Eric A. Atkins