Celebrating Juneteenth and General Orders, No. 3

by Margaret Richards and the Team at Galveston Historical Foundation on June 16, 2020 in Living Texas,
juneteenth at 1859 Ashton Villa e1592235334195

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” – General Orders, No. 3

Juneteenth and General Orders, No. 3, read on June 19, 1865 announcing that all slaves were free, is one of our region’s most important historical moments. 

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. Issued under powers granted to the president “as a fit and necessary war measure”, the proclamation declared, “That on the 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, 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…” However, Lincoln’s proclamation would have little impact on Texans at that time due to the small number of Union troops available to enforce it.

The 1865 General Orders, No. 3. Photo courtesy Galveston Historical Foundation

Two and a half years later, in June of 1865, more than 2,000 Federal soldiers of the 13th Army Corps arrived in Galveston, with them Major General Gordon Granger, Commanding Officer, District of Texas. Granger’s men marched through Galveston reading General Order No. 3 at numerous locations, including their headquarters at the Osterman Building, 1861 Custom House, courthouse, and the then Negro Church (today’s Reedy Chapel-AME Church) on Broadway. 

The order informed all Texans that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves were free.

It was from that moment that Juneteenth would be born. Since then, the annual commemoration has grown from local roots to a national celebration featuring parades, readings, processions, and more. In the late 1970s, the Texas Legislature declared Juneteenth a “holiday of significance […] particularly to the blacks of Texas.” 

Major General Gordon Granger. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Texas was the first state to establish Juneteenth as a state holiday under legislation introduced by freshman Democratic state representative Al Edwards (Houston). The law passed through the Texas Legislature in 1979 and was officially made a state holiday on January 1, 1980. After Texas recognized the date, many states followed suit. Currently, 47 of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have recognized Juneteenth as either a state holiday or ceremonial holiday, a day of observance.

In 1979, the Galveston Juneteenth Committee under the leadership of former city manager Doug Matthews and Texas Representative Al Edwards initiated an annual Galveston Juneteenth Celebration on the lawn of Ashton Villa at 2328 Broadway. The event commemorates the reading of General Order No. 3 through prayer, reflections, and community leadership. In 2006, the Juneteenth Committee with the City of Galveston erected a statue of the reading of the order that remains a permanent reminder to residents and visitors of the 1865 event. The City of Galveston transferred the building and grounds in November 2018 to Galveston Historical Foundation who have preserved and managed the property since 1970.

Osterman Building – left foreground, Picturesque Galveston, 1900. Photo courtesy Galveston Historical Foundation

Celebrations, Processions, Picnics and Parades

As African-Americans from Galveston and Texas migrated to other areas of the country, they took Juneteenth with them. Today, June 19 is celebrated in more than 200 cities throughout the United States. In Galveston and elsewhere, Juneteenth is observed with speeches and song, picnics, parades, and exhibits of African-American history and art.

The 1859 Ashton Villa. Photo courtesy Galveston Historical Foundation

The history of celebration commemorating Juneteenth and General Orders, No. 3, is significant and is a defining piece of modern commemorations. By 1878, Flake’s Bulletin, a Galveston newspaper, was providing their own local coverage and also printing wire reports from across the state devoted to Emancipation celebrations in Brenham, Marlin, Liberty, Bastrop and elsewhere. African-Americans throughout Texas observed June 19 with parades and picnics, speeches and dancing. In many communities, groups bought their own land for this and other events, often naming these tracts Emancipation Park.

The days of parades in Galveston gave way to more private Juneteenth celebrations in the middle years of the twentieth century, with families gathering for beach parties and cook-outs. Churches observed Emancipation Day with the reverent singing of the song “Lift Every Voice” (the official song of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and the plea to remember the significance of the nineteenth of June and the joy of freedom.

The Texas Historical Commission Juneteenth Marker at 22nd and Strand in Galveston.
Photo courtesy Galveston Historical Foundation

Texas Historical Commission Marker

In 2014, the Texas Historical Commission placed a subject marker at the corner of 22nd and Strand, near the location of Galveston’s Osterman Building, where General Granger and his men first read General Orders, No. 3. “Commemorated annually on June 19th, Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery in the U.S…” begins the marker, concluding, “Initially observed in Texas, this landmark event’s legacy is evident today by worldwide commemorations that celebrate freedom and the triumph of the human spirit.

In conjunction with the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston Historical Foundation will live stream the annual Juneteenth program on Friday, June 19 at 10 a.m. The feed will be available online and on the GHF Facebook page.

Cover: Juneteenth Commemorations at the 1859 Ashton Villa. Photo courtesy Galveston Historical Foundation

Galveston Historical Foundation preserves and revitalizes the architectural, cultural and maritime heritage of Galveston Island.