Every good American knows about Abraham Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation, delivered Jan. 1 of 1863.
But for many African Americans, Union Gen. Gordon Granger had the final word on the end of slavery more than two years later. Granger and his federal troops stood on Texas soil in Galveston and presented General Orders No. 3 to a crowd of blacks who were still — for a brief moment more — held in bondage.
Then Gordon read: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
Simple and to the point. And just like that, 250,000 former slaves became freedmen and freedwomen. It happened on June 19, 1865, forever sealed as Juneteenth. Some 155 years later, Juneteenth is an independence day celebration that is steadily taking root in Brunswick and throughout the nation.
Just ask Tatiana Cook, founder, director and president of Juneteenth-GA Brunswick.
“It marks a very important date, the freeing of the last slaves in America,” Cook said. “It’s freedom day for African Americans. It’s our emancipation day. Just like we celebrate July 4, it’s very important for us to acknowledge this holiday because African Americans have played such an important role in the building up of the United States of America.”
Juneteenth-GA Brunswick has held celebrations surrounding the holiday since 2014, mostly gatherings at Mary Ross Park. However, concerns over COVID-19 forced the group to cancel this year’s Juneteenth events, Cook said. She and others from Juneteenth-GA Brunswick will join a celebration Saturday afternoon at Selden Park, located off Newcastle Street at 100 Genoa Martin Drive.
But plans for next year’s Juneteenth-GA local celebrations will quickly begin taking shape, starting with a planning session at 6:30 p.m. June 30 at the group’s offices, 600 G St., Suite 1, Cook said. All who wish to contribute to next year’s event are welcome to attend, she said.
Amd it is quite possible that Juneteenth might soon have a more visible place on the national holiday calendar, Cook predicted. The national Juneteenth organization, which Juneteenth-GA is affiliated, reached its goal just this Wednesday of acquiring 100,000 signatures. That is the number needed to present a petition to Congress in Washington, D.C., to propose legislation making the Juneteenth a national holiday, she said. (Juneteenth is already a state holiday in Georgia and 46 other states.)
Helen Rachael Ladson, director of programming and tours at the Historical Harrington School and Cultural Center on St. Simons Island, believes it is time. And she believes it can be an inclusive celebration and not one exclusively for African Americans.
“Because of much of our (African American) history is oral, it’s important that we know about this holiday, and that we know that these momentous things happened in our history,” Ladson said. “Everybody celebrates the Fourth of July, so why not? We sometimes try to separate things, but it’s all interwoven together. You cannot celebrate American history without celebrating black history.”
Like Cook, Ladson was once unaware of the liberating legacy of Juneteenth. After all, does not a basic review of American history teach us that freedom for slaves began with Lincoln’s famous proclamation? That document was monumental, no question, but it also was largely symbolic of the future plans of a reunified United States. Lincoln’s proclamation, delivered less than two years after the Civil War broke out in April of 1861, applied only to those enslaved within Confederate States. It did not free those in slave-holding border states.
Furthermore, the vast majority of slaves still remained behind Confederate lines at the time. Here on the Georgia coast, however, many enslaved people were liberated by early 1862, when Union troops already occupied barrier islands and coastal towns as part of a shipping blockade. Several former slaves on St. Simons and Sapelo islands went on to serve in the Union Army, records show.
But Texas faced few direct threats from federal troops, meaning the enslaved there were held in bondage to the bitter end. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia on April 8, 1865, effectively ending the Civil War. More than two months would pass before Granger’s troops arrived in Texas to make the dream of freedom a reality.
Cook was living in Virginia in 2004 when she met a Juneteenth-VA official at a sporting event Cook hosted. That official, Martina Hamlin, would be on hand in 2014 and again in 2015 when Cook launched the first Juneteenth-GA celebrations here in Brunswick.
“She (Hamilin) just took me under her wing, and I got to learn so much about Juneteenth and its history,” Cook said. “It was just awesome. “
Ladson in turn learned about Juneteenth’s importance from Cook. Ladson said she plans to observe the holiday at home with her 12-year-old daughter, grilling hotdogs and drinking strawberry pop, a traditional Juneteenth beverage.
“Juneteeth is a lifestyle for Tatiana Cook,” Ladson said. “I hope it becomes contagious and catches on with everybody. The knowledge of yourself and the knowledge of your history, that’s the most important part of the celebration. Knowing who you are and that you are resilient — that’s a celebration within itself.”