HOUSTON - There are many misconceptions about what Juneteenth represents.
Now a federal holiday, June 19th marks the day in 1865 when Union Army general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation.
"If you talk to people around Houston I think they have a general understanding," says Dr. Gene Preuss, professor of history at the University of Houston Downtown. "We've got Emancipation Park, First Ward where Jack Yates and others set up freedom colonies…so we’ve got a couple of areas in the Greater Houston Area where Juneteenth is celebrated and certainly known."
Yet Dr. Preuss finds many people still don’t understand the time gap between the Emancipation Proclamation’s signing and Juneteenth.
"People kind of forget—and I think this is largely because of the way we teach the history of the Civil War—that Texas and other states in the south considered themselves a separate nation," Dr Preuss reminds. "When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, as far as Texas and the 11 confederate states were concerned it had no effect."
The Emancipation Proclamation was signed in September of 1862, about 2 years before General Granger's arrival. But the Civil War was still ongoing.
While many consider the April 4, 1895 surrender of Robert E. Lee to be the end of the war, Dr. Preuss points out, "the South had other armies. Texas and Louisiana were under confederate general Edmund Kirby Smith. He didn't surrender until May 26 and so it’s just a couple of weeks later that Gordon Granger arrives."
Contrary to popular understanding, Juneteenth was likely not the day enslaved Texans learned of their freedom.
"If you open up the Houston newspapers and the Galveston newspapers of the time it was on everybody's lips that the confederate nation was falling apart," Dr. Preuss says. He believes enslaved people had likely read about the Emancipation Proclamation and been waiting for it to be enforced in the South.
"The military was put in charge of overseeing the enforcement," explains Dr. Preuss. "It was very difficult. There were a lot of arrest. There are a lot of military trials and, to be quite honest, there was a lot of brutality among some former slave owners."
After the Civil War, Dr. Preuss says Southern plantation owners saw the Emancipation Proclamation as a temporary policy. "They saw no reason for freeing their slaves. The idea was this is just a temporary phase and as soon as ‘right-minded people take control we're going to get our slaves back and everything will go back to normal.’ They couldn't imagine a world where slaves were freed," says Dr. Preuss.
Juneteenth is also celebrated as a milestone in breaking down notions of white supremacy in North America. Dr. Preuss points out that, at the time, even more liberal-minded Americans in support of emancipation were slow to fully respect the lives of Black residents.
"They might say, ‘well, maybe at some point they'll become eligible for full citizenship, but not now,'" Dr. Preuss explained. "They would say, ‘well as soon as the Blacks are free they'll go off to Mexico, or we'll send them out West and they'll mix with Native Americans, but we don't want them here with us."
Many see Juneteenth as also celebrating those who fought for emancipation. Dr. Preuss says those who risked or sacrificed, their lives helped push even the most adamant confederates to change their tune.
"The highest-ranking Texan serving in the confederacy was John H. Reagan. He was the Postmaster-General for the Confederate States of America.
Reagan, after the war, was arrested and imprisoned at Fort Donalson where he pens this letter to Texans and he says, ‘look, things can go one of two ways: they can either be very harsh for us, or they can be easy for us, and if we want them to be easy you're going to have to accept the end of slavery and you're going to have to allow African Americans the right to vote.'"
Many hope Juneteenth can be a celebration not only for Black Americans but for those who stood on the right side of history. While its roots are bloody and dark, Juneteenth is seen as a celebration of the United States’ ongoing efforts toward realizing our root ideal of freedom for all.
"Emancipation meant freedom, but there was still a struggle," Dr. Preuss concludes. "We’re still living in some of that struggle. A lot of young people say that's long past but we don't have to look too far to see its effects."