On June 15, 2021, the United States Senate unanimously passed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act which would, “amend title 5, United States Code, to designate Juneteenth National Independence Day as a legal public holiday.” By the House passing a similar measure today Juneteenth will now be an official national holiday.
While many of those who had fell to human servitude and bondage would learn of emancipation by Jan. 1, 1863, it would take more than two years until that news would reach the slaves of Texas. During that Dec. 31, 1862 occasion, African- Americans would gather in churches and communities and begin what were some of the first watchnight services. They were keenly aware that President Abraham Lincoln had issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation after the bloody battle of Antietam that September. Choirs sung; prayers were uttered; testimonials were lifted up; and by the stroke of midnight it was not only a new year, but a new birth of freedom. This occasion became known to be Freedom’s Eve.
Nevertheless, the more than 200,000 slaves of Texas did not join in this jubilation until June 19, 1865. Union General Gordon Granger accompanied a regiment of 2000 USCT, would arrive in Galveston, Texas, 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.” Texas would make it a state holiday in 1980, and today many states have an official day of observance as parades, cookouts, prayer services and proclamations are all common ways that have come to represent many Juneteenth commemorations.
There are many pioneering figures that immediately come to mind when reflecting on Juneteenth. One of those is the Reverend John Henry "Jack" Yates, who was a former slave that helped construct Houston’s Emancipation Park, College Park Cemetery, and established some of the first Emancipation Day celebrations in the early 1870's. He would also be instrumental in helping to establish schools so that black children could receive a well-rounded education.
Another figure was Rep. Al Edwards. He was a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement who marched with Dr. King and worked closely with Operation Push. He pushed for Texas House Bill 1016 for many years prior to its passage. For this he is often referred to as the “Father of Juneteenth.”
Likewise, at the age of 94, Opal Lee of Ft. Worth, Texas will continue her annual March 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.” In a recent interview to ABC News Opal Lee expressed confidence that Juneteenth will be a national holiday. She noted, “It's going to be a national holiday, I have no doubt about it. My point is let's make it a holiday in my lifetime."
Rev. Ronald Myers, the longtime leader of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, is also noteworthy. Along with the NJOF, he pushed for official recognition of Juneteenth for over 25 years. In addition, the NJOF led efforts to establish official holidays and observances of Juneteenth in all 50 states. Rev. Dr. Myers has also been influential in gaining recognition for the National Day of Reconciliation and Healing from the Legacy of Enslavement and the World Day of Reconciliation and Healing from the Legacy of Enslavement.
Chattanooga has several ties to Juneteenth. After the Confederates had swept half the Union Army off the Chickamauga Battlefield, it was General Granger who would rush to shore up the weakening lines and help General George H. Thomas save the army. After the Civil War concluded, many of the former slaves turned to the Freeman's Bureau for assistance. It was General Oliver O. Howard who headed this agency and our very own Howard High is named in his honor. According to a February 2000 Chattanooga Times Free Press article, Mary Walker (1848-1969) was America's last living slave and reached an age of 121. Born in Union Springs, Al., Mary Walker arrived in Chattanooga around 1917 and remained here until her death. At the age of 116 she 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. The late Rev. John L. Edwards Jr. formed the Mary Walker Historical and Education Foundation in part to honor her, and in addition to promoting historical preservation and literacy the foundation helped to organize 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. As part of the city of Chattanooga NeighborRoots program, the Unity Group and Coalition Partners are working to erect a fitting monument dedicated to the service and contributions that the United States Colored Troops have bestowed on our community at the Chattanooga National Cemetery. There are 881 USCT are buried in the cemetery. Lincoln once commented, “Without the military help of the black freedmen, the war against the South could not have been won.”
With the passage of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, Juneteenth takes on a new relevance in 2021. With a bow to those who first awaited those fateful hours in Dec. 31, 1862 on Freedom’s Eve; those who rejoiced in jubilee in Texas on being informed of Emancipation on June 19, 1865; and the numerous individuals who participated in the decades long struggle to make Juneteenth statewide observances across the nation and ultimately a national holiday; we can affirm this year is Freedom’s Dawn, for bestowed upon us the living is the dream of the dreamers, that all may be free and walk in the marvelous light. Today, the ancestors on high do rejoice.
Pastor Charlotte S. N.N. Williams