Memory  /  Debunk

The Story We’ve Been Told About Juneteenth Is Wrong

The real history of Juneteenth is much messier—and more inspiring.

A common view about Juneteenth, in both Black and white communities, is that Black folks in Galveston and around Texas were slow to hear or fully grasp the news about the Civil War’s end and the arrival of liberty. This is the story I was told in church. But that’s not entirely true. Some portion of Black Texans, especially those working in the port of Galveston, knew that the tide of the war had long ago turned in favor of Union troops. They’d also probably caught wind of the Emancipation Proclamation from travelers disembarking on the wharves. Further, they’d likely heard what must have seemed to be fantastical tales about regiments of Black soldiers in the Union Army. 

News of impending freedom had almost certainly reached other parts of Texas, when enslaved African Americans from the Deep South were transported to the Lone Star State during the war. (Texas was a haven for white slave owners fleeing Louisiana and other areas of the Confederacy being conquered by Union troops.) But the news held little practical meaning so long as the state remained under Confederate control. The arrival of some two thousand federal troops appeared to mark an end to white rule over Black Texans. 

But Granger’s order limited and undermined the very freedoms that it promised. The relationship between former masters and the enslaved would now evolve into a vague contract between employers and hired labor. “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages,” read the order. But how could Black Texans enjoy freedom while remaining on plantations? Would they be allowed to leave, travel, or reunite with loved ones? Were they forbidden from becoming entrepreneurs and landholders? 

Further, Black men and women were warned not to flock to military posts. Since 1863, when Black men were allowed to enlist in the Union Army, its military posts had become beacons for freedmen. The sight of blue uniforms liberating secessionist territories often meant the promise of food, clothing, and reading materials. Granger’s warning that Black Texans “will not be supported in idleness” on military posts or elsewhere was an admonishment, suggesting that they could not rely on federal troops, whether those Texans were seeking protection, searching for news about family and friends, looking for work, or in need of food. The troops were there to enforce liberation, but they would not necessarily support those trying to carve out a new life.

This is why, even after Granger arrived, many Black folks responded to the news of freedom cautiously, fearing reprisals. Yet as word spread, some did walk away from plantations. Others rejoiced, exulted, and stayed put while planning their next moves.