Historian Heather Cox Richardson
[Today] is the federal holiday honoring Juneteenth, the celebration of the announcement in Texas on June 19th, 1865, that enslaved Americans were free.
On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant of the U.S. Army, but it was not until June 2 that General Edmund Kirby Smith surrendered the Trans-Mississippi Department, the last major army of the Confederacy, to the United States, in Galveston, Texas. Smith then fled to Mexico.
Seventeen days later, Major General Gordon Granger of the U.S. Army arrived to take charge of the soldiers stationed there. On June 19, he issued General Order Number 3. It read:
“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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”
The order went on: “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
While the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolishing enslavement except as punishment for a crime had passed through Congress on January 31, 1865, and Lincoln had signed it on February 1, the states were still in the process of ratifying it.
So Granger’s order referred not to the Thirteenth Amendment, but to the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, which declared that Americans enslaved in states that were in rebellion against the United States “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and that the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons.” Granger was informing the people of Galveston that, Texas having been in rebellion on January 1, 1863, their world had changed. The federal government would see to it that, going forward, white people and Black people would be equal.
Black people in Galveston met the news Order No. 3 brought with celebrations in the streets, but emancipation was not a gift from white Americans. Black Americans had fought for the United States and worked in the fields to grow cotton the government could sell. Those unable to leave their homes had hidden U.S. soldiers, while those who could leave indicated their hatred of the Confederacy and enslavement with their feet. They had demonstrated their equality and their importance to the postwar United States.
The next year, after the Thirteenth Amendment had been added to the Constitution, Texas freedpeople gathered on June 19, 1866, to celebrate with prayers, speeches, food, and socializing the coming of their freedom. By the following year, the federal government encouraged “Juneteenth” celebrations, eager to explain to Black citizens the voting rights that had been put in place by the Military Reconstruction Act in early March 1867, and the tradition of Juneteenth began to spread to Black communities across the nation.
But white former Confederates in Texas were demoralized and angered by the changes in their circumstances. “It looked like everything worth living for was gone,” Texas cattleman Charles Goodnight later recalled.
In summer 1865, as white legislators in the states of the former Confederacy grudgingly ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, they also passed laws to keep freedpeople subservient to their white neighbors. These laws, known as the Black Codes, varied by state, but they generally bound Black Americans to yearlong contracts working in the fields owned by white men; prohibited Black people from meeting in groups, owning guns or property, or testifying in court; outlawed interracial marriage; and permitted white men to buy out the jail terms of Black people convicted of a wide swath of petty crimes, and then to force those former prisoners into labor to pay off their debt.
In 1865, Congress refused to readmit the Southern states under the Black Codes, and in 1866, congressmen wrote and passed the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Its first section established that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” It went on: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
That was the whole ball game. The federal government had declared that a state could not discriminate against any of its citizens or arbitrarily take away any of a citizen’s rights. Then, like the Thirteenth Amendment before it, the Fourteenth declared that “Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article,” strengthening the federal government.
The addition of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1868 remade the United States. But those determined to preserve a world that discriminated between Americans according to race, gender, ability, and so on, continued to find workarounds.
On Friday, June 16, 2023, the Department of Justice—created in 1870 to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment—released the report of its investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) and the City of Minneapolis in the wake of the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by a police officer. The 19-page document found systemic “conduct that deprives people of their rights under the Constitution and federal law,” discriminating against Black and Native American people, people with behavioral health disabilities, and protesters. Those systemic problems in the MPD’s institutional culture enabled Floyd’s killing.
Minneapolis police performed 22% more searches, 27% more vehicle searches, and 24% more uses of force on Black people than on white residents behaving in similar ways. They conducted 23% more searches and used force 20% more on Indigenous Americans.
The Justice Department’s press release specified that the city and the police department “cooperated fully.” The two parties have “agreed in principle” to fix the problem with sweeping reforms based on community input, with an independent monitor rather than litigation.
While the Senate unanimously approved the measure creating the Juneteenth holiday last year, fourteen far-right Republicans voted against it, many of them complaining that such a holiday would be divisive.
How we remember our history matters.
[General Order No. 3, National Records and Archives Administration, public domain.]
J. Evetts Haley, Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman (1949; rpt. University of Oklahoma Press, 1981).