Thursday, June 7, 2018

Juneteenth: The History and the People

It's hot in Texas during the month of June. 

Trust me, I know this from experience. We lived in the Lone Star state for more than thirty years, and I often said Texas has four seasons: Warm, hot, scorching, and back to warm again. I could not have survived without air conditioning!

In my latest release, The Widow of Rose Hill, the residents of Rose Hill plantation receive life-altering news on a hot Texas day in June 1865. That news, delivered by Union soldiers, is still celebrated today by people around the world.

Ashton Villa, Galveston, Texas; Photo: Google

The American Civil War had been raging for four long years. Texas, a slave-holding state, seceded from the Union in February 1861 and joined the Confederate States of America on March 2, 1861. By that time it's estimated there were over 250,000 slaves in bondage in Texas. While most lived in rural areas on farms and plantations, many lived in the larger cities like Houston, San Antonio, and Galveston, home of the largest slave market west of New Orleans. 

Although General Lee surrendered to General Grant on April 9, 1865, news of that historic meeting didn't reach Texas until many weeks later. Most Texans living inland had no idea the war was over, and some were unaware of President Lincoln's assassination. 

General Gordon Granger
On June 18, 1865, General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, along with two thousand Union Army troops prepared to occupy Texas on behalf of the federal government. On June 19, standing on the balcony of Ashton Villa, General Granger read aloud the contents of "General Order No. 3", announcing the total emancipation of slaves:
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 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.
As you can imagine, celebrations erupted in Galveston, with now-freed men and women crying, shouting, and running through the streets. But what about the thousands upon thousands of slaves throughout the state still in bondage? It would be many months before all 250,000+ slaves learned of their freedom. As I portray in the opening scenes of The Widow of Rose Hill, Union troops traveled all across the state, stopping in towns, farms, and plantations to read the proclamation.

In the book I Was Born in Slavery, the research book I relied upon most heavily while writing The Women of Rose Hill series, nearly all of the former Texas slaves interviewed recalled that historic day. Lu Lee, a woman whose grandparents came from Africa, remembered how the plantation owner, Master Davy, had all the slaves gathered to hear the proclamation read aloud. A man named George cried out in a powerful voice: "Free, free my Lord! Oh, free, free my Lord!" Laura Cornish, a former slave in Liberty County, Texas, described her memory of that day: "One mornin', Papa Day calls all the folks up to the house and reads 'em the freedom papers what the gov'ment says to read to all the cullud folks."

Julia Frances Daniels, born 1848
somewhere in Georgia
The former slaves refer to that day as "Freedom" or the day freedom came. They measured time by it: "Before Freedom ..." or "the first year after Freedom..." Many slaves took freedom by the tail and set out to make a new life for themselves. Others, like Julia Frances Daniels, stayed and continued to work where they'd been enslaved. "We might as well stay here as go somewhere else," the men in her family decided. "We ain't got no money, and no place to go unless we go a-seekin' a place."

Today, Juneteenth is celebrated throughout the United States, with Texas leading the way in making it an official state holiday in 1980. Many communities, including Galveston, host parades, festivals, picnics, African-American heritage exhibits, reenactments, concerts, and more.

This year on June 19th, let's all join in and celebrate Freedom! Fly a flag. Host a freedom dinner. Post General Order #3 on social media. Most importantly, may we never forget the precious people who lived in bondage but gained their freedom on a hot day in June 1865.

Have you ever celebrated Juneteenth? Would you like to? I'd love to hear about it!

Michelle Shocklee is the award-winning author of The Planter's Daughter and The Widow of Rose Hill. Her historical novella set in the New Mexico Territory is included in The Mail-Order Brides Collection. Michelle and her husband of 31 years make their home in Tennessee. Connect with her at

Widowed during the war, Natalie Ellis finds herself solely responsible for Rose Hill plantation. When Union troops arrive with a proclamation freeing the slaves, all seems lost. How can she run the plantation without slaves? In order to save her son’s inheritance she strikes a deal with the arrogant, albeit handsome, Colonel Maish. In exchange for use of her family’s property, the army will provide workers to bring in her cotton crop. But as her admiration for the colonel grows, a shocking secret is uncovered. Can she trust him with her heart and her young, fatherless son?


  1. I had never heard of Juneteenth! Thanks for the interesting post!

  2. You're welcome, Connie!! I hadn't heard of it either until I moved to Texas and had kids in school. And even then, the importance of it didn't really sink in until I began researching slavery in Texas. Have a blessed day!

  3. We have a Juneteenth celebration here in my home town, but I wasn't aware of the roots of the holiday. Thanks for this!

  4. You're welcome, Stephanie! Have a great day!

  5. I was unaware of Juneteenth celebration. Thank you for sharing your discovery of this vital historical information, Michelle. What a difference today with immediate news report of big events.

  6. Thanks, Marilyn. Yes, it's hard to imagine news traveling soooo slowly!! Have a blessed day!

  7. What a fascinating post, Michelle! I knew of Juneteenth but not all these details. Thank you so much for sharing about this important piece of our history!

  8. When I looked through the calendar this year I saw Juneteenth for the very first time. I had no idea what it was about until I read your post. Thank you for educating me about this historic event.

  9. Thank you, Kiersti and Debbie, for your comments! I'm glad you enjoyed the post! =)