Tag Archives: Juneteenth

Taking Advantage of the Fact

Civil War recruiting broadside depicting the path forward: Freedom, military victory, education, literacy, and the destruction of the flag of the “Slave Power” (Kentucky Library)

The Juneteenth celebration has its origins in the announcement delivered on June 19, 1865 by Union troops at Galveston, Texas, that “all slaves are free.”  The Confederacy’s surrender the previous April had finally put the U.S. Army in a position to enforce President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which had taken effect on January 1, 1863.

In Texas and elsewhere, according to historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Emancipation “wasn’t exactly instant magic.”  News traveled slowly, and sometimes those “who acted on the news did so at their peril.”  After 1863, nearly 200,000 African Americans enlisted in the Union Army, and others took risky steps to establish (in the words of Juneteenth.com) “a heretofore non-existent status.”

Whites could be rather flummoxed by their former slaves’ embrace of emancipation.  Shortly before the war ended, Sallie Knott observed that “Negro troops” had come to Lebanon, Kentucky to recruit.  “They have already induced many to go,” she wrote in her diary, given that “their families are free as soon as they enter the army.”  A Southern sympathizer, Sallie was nevertheless amused at the travails of a white neighbor whose slaves had all decamped.  “The Madam is cooking herself!” she snickered. “There is a little good mingled with all this evil!”  A month earlier, she had heard from her stepfather in Warren County that an enslaved member of his household had the temerity to ask “for wages!  Papa told him he’d not give his own servant [sic] wages,” but would graciously give him Saturdays off.  “I should not be surprised,” wrote Sally, to hear of the “servant’s” early departure.  Similarly, in Sherman, Texas, Patience Smith wrote to acknowledge the first letter received from her sister Emily in Tennessee “since the war broke up.”  She seemed even more disoriented by the absence of enslaved labor.  Her brother Burrell, she complained, “has not a negro on his land,” and his wife and daughter were stuck with all the work! 

Sophia, 1888

We have blogged before about the post-Emancipation odyssey of a young woman named Sophia, who for more than two decades was the mistress, housekeeper, and companion of Richard Vance, an Army officer from Warren County, Kentucky.  Vance first met Sophia in 1867 at his military station in Little Rock, Arkansas and learned her story.  When Emancipation came, she was still a young girl, and the rest of her enslaved family had already been sent away by their master to keep them from falling into the hands of the “hated yankees.”  Sophia remained in a condition of “absolute slavery” until early 1866, when local African Americans learned of their freedom “through the instrumentalities of the Freedmen’s Bureau” and “were enabled through the same agency to take advantage of that fact.”  Carrying only a bundle of ragged clothes, Sophia finally left.  Twenty years later, she enjoyed a reunion with her long-lost brother and sisters in Texas.  She found them prosperous, the owners of “farms, horses, cows, hogs, orchards, bees and all the paraphernalia of thrifty cotton growers.  This is remarkable,” wrote Vance, who had helped her locate them, “seeing that only a couple of decades since they were slaves, uneducated, pennyless, and surrounded by a hostile population.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  (The Hamilton Family Collection, which contains Patience Smith’s letter, is currently being processed).  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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8th of August Emancipation Celebration

On September 22, 1862, President Lincoln placed pen to paper and wrote the following executive order,

The first page of the Emancipation Proclamation. Handwritten document.
The Emancipation Proclamation
(Courtesy of the National Archives)

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

As an authoritative wartime measure, the Emancipation Proclamation granted freedom to more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans who remained under control by the Confederate government in ten southern states—not including the “border states” and those already under Union occupation.

While the proclamation, which was contingent upon a Union victory, may have ignited a firestorm of criticism from white southern sympathizers and praise from anti-abolitionists, its implementation was slow to take root, especially in Texas.

Seceding from the United States on February 1, 1861, Texas became the fourth state admitted into the Confederacy. Throughout the course of the Civil War, slaveholders from eastern states, notably Arkansas and Louisiana, routinely brought slaves to Texas in order to avoid emancipation, which significantly increased the number of slaves across the state. When the Emancipation Proclamation was made official in 1863, however, it took nearly two and a half years before the order was enforced. While theories abound in order to explain this severe lag—ranging from murder to deliberate miscommunication—history itself is quite clear.

On June 19, 1865, Union Army General Gordon Granger and his troops landed on the beaches of Galveston Island and declared Texas under federal occupation. Granger read Lincoln’s executive order, thereby liberating the nearly 250,000 slaves living in Texas. “Juneteenth,” then, has come to be recognized as the “traditional end of slavery in Texas.” The day has become established as a state-recognized holiday, while other states may observe Juneteenth in other forms of ceremonial remembrance. The underpinnings of Juneteenth rest on the celebration of Black pride, solidarity, and cultural heritage.

Akin to Juneteenth festivities, the 8th of August is another emancipation-related holiday observed by African American communities in both western Kentucky and Tennessee. While the reasons for celebrating August 8th remain unclear, the lasting impact it has had on the region is decidedly obvious. Every year, the city of Paducah, Kentucky hosts its 8th of August Homecoming Emancipation Celebration. The Homecoming seeks to honor exceptional members of the African American community, both past and present, through memorial services, picnics, music performances, and church assemblies.

Program booklet for the 2008 8th of August Emancipation celebration
Program booklet for the 2008 8th of August Emancipation Celebration

WKU’s Manuscripts and Folklife Archives contains a collection (FA 635) of materials gathered together from Paducah’s 2008 8th of August Homecoming Emancipation Celebration titled “A Journey by Faith.” In his program introduction, Robert Coleman, President of the W.C. Young Community Center Board of Directors, writes,

“America’s struggle, rise, and triumph from slavery to equal rights for all is a living testament to the power of deep, personal faith for Americans of all colors. That deep well of faith from the darkest days of slavery sets the African American experience of religion apart.”

The program itself includes articles describing the accomplishments of distinguished members of the Black community, advertisements for local businesses and churches, and a schedule of the weekend’s events. The collection also contains photographs of the celebration, vendor information, business cards, and two interviews with James Dawson, a member of the First Liberty Missionary Baptist Church, that were recorded on digital videocassette tapes.

For more information on African American folklore, material culture, foodways, and achievements throughout the state of Kentucky and beyond, visit TopSCHOLAR or browse through KenCat, a searchable database featuring manuscripts, photographs, and other non-book objects housed in the Department of Library Special Collections! Post written by WKU Folk Studies graduate student Delainey Bowers

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