Speaker Series: Dr. Willie Griffin on Juneteenth and Emancipation Day

Dr. Willie Griffin

In advance of the upcoming holiday, Luquire held a virtual open house June 3 and invited Dr. Willie Griffin, Staff Historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, to discuss the history and significance of Juneteenth and Emancipation Day.

Juneteenth’s Origin in Texas

This year marks the 156th anniversary of Juneteenth. On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce the end of the Civil War and slavery. His announcement, General Order Number 3, reads:

“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 Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

Texas was actually one of the last places former slaves were informed of their newfound freedom, Dr. Griffin said, and the words “absolute equality” in General Order Number 3 served as undeniable verification of their freedom from slavery.

“This day was somehow different,” he said. “The use of the phrase ‘absolute equality’ had not been used in any previous document – so this was new and something very special to the folks living in Texas.”

Dr. Griffin explained that many plantation owners took their human property to Texas, and deliberately ignored laws affecting them, until Major general Granger’s announcement.

“This watershed moment between these two stories of slavery and freedom has really been missing from our collective understanding of the country’s history,” Dr. Griffin said. “Most Americans believe in a more simplified narrative about the end of slavery – that it just happened, and all enslaved African Americans gained their freedom at once – and there really is no need to examine this any further, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

Juneteenth in North Carolina

In addition to the Texas history, Dr. Griffin spent some time discussing the history of Juneteenth and Emancipation Day in North Carolina. He quoted an 1873 article from the Charlotte Democrat that reads, “We hope that the colored people in this section will quit celebrations and festivals and work for themselves individually… white men who pay their debts and don’t live off of the earnings of other people never lose time by engaging in the foolish parades and the so-called festivals or church fairs.” He pointed out the inherent irony in in suggesting that that white people at the time did not ‘earn a living off of the earnings of other people.’

But he also shared some brighter aspects North Carolina’s history.

“I think North Carolina, more than any other state, was one of the more progressive states,” Dr. Griffin said. “You had the populist party coming into power. There were other southern states, like Arkansas, that had a very strong populist movement, as well as parts of Georgia, but not to the extent of North Carolina.”

Juneteenth’s Evolution

Juneteenth celebrations became less common in the earlier part of the twentieth century but experienced a renaissance with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Dr. Griffith said, in large part because of Reverend Ralph Abernathy, a widely known figure during the civil rights movement who publicly encouraged African Americans to form committees to plan Juneteenth celebrations in their various hometowns. Two of the largest celebrations materialized in Minneapolis and Milwaukee, according to Dr. Griffin, and those cities still host some of the biggest Juneteenth celebrations in the country today.

Back in Texas, Al Edwards, a state representative, became known as “Mr. Juneteenth.” In 1980 he was responsible for getting Texas to become the first state in this country to have a statewide holiday recognizing the emancipation of African Americans.

Juneteenth Today

After the presentation, Dr. Griffin engaged all of us in a conversation about its history and its relevance to current-day events.

Christina Rogers brought up the issue of accuracy in our school curriculums and asked if there has been any shift in the narrative that commonly portrays Abraham Lincoln as “the great emancipator.”

“Teachers are normally hogtied by the end-of-the-year exams, and there’s not a lot of time to teach outside of a curriculum unless you’re teaching a class like African American studies,” Dr. Griffin said. “Generally, most Americans have not explored President Lincoln’s feelings about African Americans during that time. He considered moving all African Americans after emancipation to South America to mine rubber, so he did not believe in absolute equality. Does this destroy his reputation as the great emancipator? I don’t think so. I don’t think that it’s an either/or in terms of the curriculums changing that. That is a struggle that local communities have to come to grips with because each community is different and unique.”

After an insightful and engaging discussion, Dr. Griffin ended on a hopeful note.

“I think the future of Juneteenth is bright,” he said. “A number of cities and states are forming Juneteenth committees as they continue to increase the appreciation for all our differences. I would encourage everyone to get involved in supporting Juneteenth celebrations. I think they help create new bonds friendship and understanding among us.”

Juneteenth Festival and Freedom March: Experience the 24th annual Juneteenth of the Carolinas festival in Plaza Midwood. The march will begin at 9 a.m. on June 19 at the Grady Cole Center and end at the House of Africa on Central and Thomas Avenues, where the festival will be held from June 17-20. For more information, visit Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas.

About the task force
LGA’s Racial Equity and Justice Task Force includes a cross-section of employees who play a significant role in putting action behind LGA’s commitment to create a better, more equitable future. The purpose of the task force is to develop, execute and promote strategies and creative ideas to solve the issues facing our society. Learn more.