The goal of the abolitionist movement was realized on June 19th, 1865, when Union army general Gordon Granger announced federal orders in the city of Galveston, Texas, proclaiming that all slaves in Texas were now free. That day is now known as Juneteenth. This is a brief history of Juneteenth and some of the Black women who worked resolutely for the freedom of Black America.
Juneteenth: Freedom in Texas
The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22nd, 1862 and placed into effect on January 1,1863. It called for the immediate release of enslaved African Americans living in the Confederacy. The Emancipation Proclamation should have ushered in freedom for all Black Americans. But for at least 250,000 enslaved people living in the remote state of Texas, emancipation did not come. In fact, it would not come for another two and a half years.
It is unclear why the news of emancipation took so long to reach the most isolated state in the Confederacy. Historians have investigated several scenarios, including that would-be messengers could have been murdered in order to silence the news, or that the news was deliberately withheld for the benefit of enslavers. Nonetheless, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger seized Command of Texas on June 19th, 1865, and under General Order Number 3, announced that all enslaved people were to be freed immediately . This order advised newly freed African Americans to remain at their residences and work for wages. However, many decided to depart from their former places of captivity. Some headed to other defunct Confederate States in search of lost family members. Other free people disbursed West and into northern states, hopeful to find better living conditions .
(general order number 3, via texas.gov)
The disbursement of newly free people allowed the story of Juneteenth to travel far and wide. In Texas and elsewhere, Juneteenth celebrations continued annually as a symbol of pride and the unbreakable spirit of Black America. Post-abolition society remained a hostile and dangerous place for Black Americans. In the early 20th century, Juneteenth gained popularity as a joyous, unifying act of resistance against the brutalities of Jim Crow America. The first Juneteenth marked the beginning of a new era in the struggle for Black liberation. But what led up to that moment?
Before Juneteenth and the Emancipation Proclamation, the abolitionist movement was a key driver of the social and legislative support that eventually put an end to chattel slavery. It was a struggle that had to be tirelessly fought. Though the voices of abolition were fairly significant in number, only white male abolitionists were permitted to speak on it. Some white women were famously active in the movement, but not without objection from their communities .
For Black Americans, participating in the anti-slavery struggle could be especially dangerous business. Under the shadow of white supremacy, African Americans had fewer rights, even within the Union. But for free Black Americans, publicly opposing slavery was worth the risk. The most well-known Black abolitionists include Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass– yet there were many other notable Black abolitionists, and probably numerous more that remain unnamed.
(Frances E.W. Harper, via Smithsonian Libraries)
“… I belong to this race, and when it is down I belong to a down race; when it is up I belong to a risen race.”- Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, (1872)
Frances E.W. Harper Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a poet, abolitionist orator, and suffragist. Born of free status in Baltimore in 1825, Watkins was influenced by her uncle, William Watkins. He was a passionate abolitionist, literacy advocate, and teacher. Watkins received her elementary education from her uncle’s Academy.
In her prose, Watkins spoke of identity, morality, and the inhumanity of the slave trade. Her first poetry collection was entitled “Forest Leaves.” As tensions over slavery started to boil, Watkins became devoted to the struggle for abolition. She spent nearly a decade traveling across the United States and Canada as an abolitionist lecturer. In 1859, she published “The Two Offers”, a story that spoke out about women’s education. This was the first short story ever published by a Black woman.
At the 1866 National Women’s Rights Convention, Frances E.W. Harper famously delivered her speech, “We are all Bound Up Together”, which urged white suffragists to stand up for their black sisters. Harper continued her leadership by co-founding the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. Through her writing, poetry, and lectures, Harper powerfully amplified the voices of her community until her death in 1911 [4,5,6].
Sarah Mapps Douglass Born September 9, 1806, Sarah Mapps Douglass was the daughter of prominent Philadephian abolitionists. Despite being born into an elevated social status, Douglass was outspoken against the anti-black discrimination that she experienced within her community and within the Quaker Church. These experiences fueled her work as a dedicated educator, writer, fundraiser, and anti-slavery lecturer . Early on, Douglass operated and taught at a private school for African American Women. She later became involved with the Female Literary Association, a Black women’s society for intellectual growth and activism. Through the Association, Douglass published numerous anti-slavery pieces in a weekly abolitionist newspaper called The Liberator. In 1837, Douglass served as a committe member for the first integrated National Anti-Slavery Convention. Years later, she studied medicine and went on to teach African American women about health and physiology. She remained active in the abolitionist sphere, eventually serving as vice president of the women’s Freedman’s Aid Society . Douglass’s unwavering dedication to activism and teaching made her an invaluable voice within the anti-slavery movement.
MumBet, aka Elizabeth Freeman
Elizabeth Freeman, “MumBet” Before she became Elizabeth Freeman, this abolitionist was called “MumBet”. MumBet was born into enslavement and was likely in her teens when she was brought to work in the home of Colonel John Ashley in 1746. While working in the Ashley home, MumBet overheard a discussion about the newly ratified Massachssetts constitution. More specifically, she heard the words “all people are born free and equal” and figured that this statement applied to her, too.
MumBet sought the help of Theodore Sedgwick, a local lawyer and abolitionist. Sedgwick added a male party, an enslaved man called Brom, to her case in order to strengthen it. Brom and Bett v. Ashley broke ground when the jury ruled that the enslaved parties were being held unlawfully and declared both MumBet and Brom to be free. MumBet eventually chose the name Elizabeth Freeman and lived out the rest of her days as a free woman. Freeman’s persistence and faith sparked a movement. Within a few years, slavery was declared illegal in the state of Massachusetts .
Juneteenth is a powerful time to celebrate the lives of these and so many more incredible Black Americans. It’s also a valuable time to focus on how to move forward in their legacies. As we continue with the demands and labors for an equitable society, it’s more critical than ever to amplify the voices of Black America. More inspiration for your Juneteenth celebration can be found here.
Written by Jessica Lamb, WMC Volunteer
1.”History of Juneteenth.” June 17, 2020.
2.Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “What is Juneteenth?”. PBS. The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. June 17, 2020.
3. “Women and Abolition” The Abolition Seminar, 2014. June 17, 2020.
4. Alexander, Kerri Lee. “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.” National Women’s History Museum, 2020. June 17, 2020.
5. Marcia Robinson PhD, Milton C. Sernett PhD. “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.” National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum. June 17, 2020.
6. The editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Frances E.W. Harper: American Author and Social Reformer.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. June 17, 2020.
7.Lindhorst, Marie. “Politics in a Box:
Sarah Mapps Douglass and the
Female Literary Association, 1831-1833”. Penn State. June 17, 2020.
8.Levy, Valerie D. “Sarah Mapps Douglass” Voices From the Gaps, 2009. June 17, 2020.
9. “August 22, 1781: Jury Decides in Favor of Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman. Mass Moments. June 17, 2020.