It’s been cause for celebration since this day in 1865.
The day on which the very last persons held in bondage in the Confederacy learned of their freedom.
It began that day, 156 years ago, in Texas:
On “Freedom’s Eve,” or the eve of January 1, 1863, the first Watch Night services took place. On that night, enslaved and free African Americans gathered in churches and private homes all across the country awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect. At the stroke of midnight, prayers were answered as all enslaved people in Confederate States were declared legally free. Union soldiers, many of whom were black, marched onto plantations and across cities in the south reading small copies of the Emancipation Proclamation spreading the news of freedom in Confederate States. Only through the Thirteenth Amendment did emancipation end slavery throughout the United States.
But not everyone in Confederate territory would immediately be free. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation was made effective in 1863, it could not be implemented in places still under Confederate control. As a result, in the westernmost Confederate state of Texas, enslaved people would not be free until much later. Freedom finally came on June 19, 1865, when some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. The army announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved black people in the state, were free by executive decree. This day came to be known as “Juneteenth,” by the newly freed people in Texas. 1
And it spread from there — with ups and downs as conditions and circumstances changed, but never disappearing, never diminishing in its importance.
And, as of 2021, a federal holiday here in the United States. The bill so designating this momentous occasion was signed into law by President Biden on Thursday.2 There’s a whole day filled with virtual programming being offered by the National Museum of African American History & Culture titled Juneteenth: Celebration of Resilience.
Even Google with its doodle today is marking Juneteenth.
It’s a day for celebration.
And for action.
Especially for those of us who — like The Legal Genealogist — are, um, melanin-challenged. Those of us for whom this is a new holiday.
We can make a personal effort today and hereafter to help our friends, our colleagues and our cousins in the African American community document our shared history, our shared genealogy, even our shared family ties.
Just a few ideas…
We can pitch in and give our time to indexing and transcribing projects to help make African American genealogy more accessible. Projects ongoing right now include:
• The Restore the Ancestors 2019 indexing group at FamilySearch — a project of the International African American Museum’s Center for Family History — is currently working on indexing the collection of Bills of Sale of Enslaved Persons, 1799–1872. Information on how to join the project and begin indexing can be found here.
• The Library of Congress also has crowdsourced transcription programs — general information can be found here — and one current project includes the papers of Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954), educator, women’s rights advocate and civil rights activist, first black woman appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education, founding president of the National Association of Colored Women and, in 1909, a founder of the NAACP.
We might consider giving of our physical effort in helping locate and record Black cemeteries that are not on Find A Grave or Billion Graves.
We can open our wallets. Gifts to the National Museum of African American History & Culture through tomorrow (June 20) up to $25,000 are being matched by the Ford Motor Company — and membership is always an option. Membership dollars also support the International African American Museum — more information here — which is scheduled to open next year with its fabulous Center for Family History.
At a minimum we can open our family’s records and documents — and make sure that we are sharing our part of the story that led up to Juneteenth with everyone else. That family story about the enslaved? That private diary? That family Bible or other artifact? Yeah. We need to get that information out there so everyone — descended from enslaver or enslaved — has access.
Pitching in will make Juneteenth a celebration for all of us who love family history.
Genealogy and Juneteenth.
Count me in.
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Genealogy and Juneteenth,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 19 June 2021).
- “The Historical Legacy of Juneteenth,” National Museum of African American History & Culture (https://nmaahc.si.edu/ : accessed 19 June 2021). ↩
- Annie Karni and Luke Broadwater, “Biden Signs Law Making Juneteenth a Federal Holiday,” The New York Times, posted 17 June 2021 (https://www.nytimes.com/ : accessed 19 June 2021). ↩