What is Juneteenth?

Observe the day by reading the stories and histories written and told by the people who were once slaves.

Refugees from Slavery

On June 18, 1865, slaves in Texas were declared free. General Gordon Granger read a proclamation from the balcony of the Ashton Villa in Galveston:

“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 Emancipation Proclamation became law on January first of 1863, but it took a lot longer for the reality of emancipation to get to Texas for several reasons. One was Texas’ relative isolation from the rest of the south that was in rebellion. Also, Texas was not a battlefield during the Civil War. And things didn’t turn on a dime the next day, June 19. Reconstruction, Jim Crow, repression, segregation . . . the legacy of slavery lives on.

Today, 45 out of 50 states observe Juneteenth. You can observe the day and celebrate by reading the stories and histories written and told by the people who were once slaves.

Slave Narratives

Dover’s boxed set of slave narratives includes five classics. Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northrup’s own story,was the basis for the 2913 film of the same name. The Life of Olaudah Equiano, publishes in the late Eighteenths century, is one of the earliest slave narratives. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published in 1861and provides an unflinching story of captivity and escape. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom has a fascinating gender-bender aspect: the wife, Ellen Craft, was light-skinned and so presented herself as the master and her husband, William, acted as her slave. They managed to escape in the late 1840s. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is possibly the most famous. Frederick Douglass commanding photographic portraits, his hair graying as he ages into elder statesman for abolition, are awe-inspiring even today.

And just as people were writing and telling their histories, others were also creating moving fiction about the injustices of slavery. The first novel by an African-American, Clotel or the President’s Daughter by William Wells Brown, is a fictional account of the life of a daughter of Thomas Jefferson. The book begins with Brown’s own experience as an escaped slave. Although a novel, the book provides a way to think about the author of the Declaration of Independence as a man who owned other human beings — and then the fate of those people in the country forged by a Founding Father.

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