Juneteenth & Emancipation Day Barbecues

The Story of Emancipation Day Celebrations

By Robert F. Moss

Band at the Emancipation Day Celebration, Austin, Texas, June 19, 1900
Band at the Emancipation Day Celebration, Austin, Texas, June 19, 1900 (Courtesy Portal to Texas History and Austin History Center)

This coming Friday is Juneteenth, a holiday that is getting a lot of attention in the news these days. Amid the national turmoil following the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, this commemoration of the day when the last enslaved people in the South were emancipated has taken on added significance. It became embroiled in controversy, too, after Donald Trump, in what was widely viewed as a slap in the face of African-Americans, scheduled a massive campaign rally on June 19th in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (He quickly bowed to pressure and delayed it to the following day.)

This week, the New York Times and many other publications have run capsule histories of Juneteenth. They note that June 19, 1865, was the day Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and read Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to the enslaved people there, officially notifying them of their freedom and end of the Civil War.

Most of these accounts focus on Juneteenth’s Texas roots and don’t discuss the larger context of Emancipation Day celebrations in the 19th century. Few note that the holiday has a long connection with the great American culinary tradition of barbecue, a connection I discuss in detail in my book, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution (2010).

The Texas event in 1865 was by no means the first emancipation celebration to take place in the South. Lincoln’s proclamation actually consisted of two executive orders. The first, issued on September 22, 1862, declared that slaves would be emancipated on January 1, 1863, and the second, issued on New Year’s Day, put emancipation into effect.

The arrival of January 1st was much anticipated by African Americans in parts of the South that were already under federal occupation. At Camp Saxton outside Beaufort, South Carolina, which had fallen early in the war, a celebration was planned in a live oak grove adjoining the camp, and several thousand black residents from the surrounding Sea Islands were invited.

Ten oxen were procured for the the barbecue pits. Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a prominent abolitionist from Massachusetts and leader of the First South Carolina (Union) Volunteers, described the preparations with interest in his diaries. “Touching the length of time required to ‘do’ an ox,” he wrote, “no two housekeepers appear to agree. Accounts vary from two hours to twenty four. We shall happily have enough to try all gradations of roasting, and suit all tastes.” This was wartime, though, and by the time the skinny oxen were in place over the flames, “the firelight gleam[ed] through their ribs, as if they were great lanterns.”

Crowds began gathering around 10:00 A.M. on New Year’s morning, arriving by land and by special steamers sent by the camp commander. The Eighth Maine band played for the ceremonies, and following a prayer, Lincoln’s proclamation was read to the assembled multitude. The moment the speaker finished, the assembled freedmen spontaneously began singing “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”

The Emancipation Day celebration at Camp Saxton, South Carolina, on New Year’s Day 1863, as captured in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (January 24, 1863.) The color-sergeant of the First South Carolina is addressing his regiment after having been presented with the Stars and Stripes.
The Emancipation Day celebration at Camp Saxton, South Carolina, on New Year’s Day 1863, as captured in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (January 24, 1863.) The color-sergeant of the First South Carolina is addressing his regiment after having been presented with the Stars and Stripes. (Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Following an oration and more patriotic songs, the assembly broke to eat. Apart from the barbecued beef, the provisions were spartan: hard bread and water sweetened with molasses and ginger. Susie King Taylor, a formerly enslaved woman who had become a schoolteacher on St. Simons Island in Georgia, recalled the feast as “a fitting close and the crowning event of this occasion. . . . Although not served as tastily or correctly as it would have been at home, yet it was enjoyed with keen appetites and relish.”

Across the occupied South, similar celebrations took place when Union officers read the Emancipation Proclamation aloud to gatherings of formerly-enslaved people. Since the measure could be enforced only in territory controlled by Union troops, it took several years for emancipation to reach all of the Confederacy, with Texas the last state to be freed.

On June 18, 1865—some two months after Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House—General Gordon Granger of the Union army landed with federal troops in Galveston, Texas. The next day he read Lincoln’s proclamation to an assembled crowd, formalizing the emancipation of over 250,000 enslaved Texans.

Juneteenth is frequently described as the day that news of emancipation reached the state, as if enslaved Texans had actually been free for two months but didn’t know it. In actuality, they had been legally freed by Lincoln’s proclamation for more than two years, but they would remain in actual bondage as long as their state remained under Confederate control.

The surrender at Appomattox in April was just of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Further South, the remaining Confederate forces surrendered piecemeal through May and June. The arrival of Federal troops in Galveston was required not to deliver the news but to restore order and begin enforcing the Proclamation. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. discusses in his excellent history of Juneteenth for The Root, plantation owners and ex-Confederate local officials violently resisted the order for months afterwards.

Commemorations of the various Emancipation days quickly became major annual holidays in African American communities. “Every year since the signing of that celebrated document,” the editors of the Atlanta Daily World observed in 1955, “there has been staged among our group some sort of anniversary of grateful expression. Hardly any individual or specific organization can claim credit for the initiation of this practice, for it had its beginning among the early freedmen in every state involved in the slavery question.”

Emancipation celebrations were key civic events for African Americans during Reconstruction, and barbecue was front and center. The date for a community’s celebration varied from state to state. January 1—the day on which Lincoln’s proclamation went into effect in 1863—was the traditional date in Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia, but in other states the date varied. August 4 and 8 were the norm in Kentucky, north-central Tennessee, and northeastern Arkansas.

Emancipation Day parade in Richmond, Virginia, April 4, 1905
Emancipation Day parade in Richmond, Virginia, April 4, 1905 (Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Emancipation Day barbecues were soon spread to states that had never permitted slaveholding. In Kansas, for example, the day of the celebration was August 4, following the traditions of Kentucky and Tennessee, since many black residents of those states had moved to Kansas in the wake of Reconstruction to buy farmland and escape worsening racial tensions.

Ella Boney grew up in Hill City in the 1870s and 1880s, and in a 1938 interview she recalled that the Emancipation Proclamation Picnic was “one of the biggest events of the year for Negroes in Kansas.” It was held for four days in a large grove outside Nicodemus, and African Americans would travel from all over the state to attend. “There are about twelve barbecue pits dug,” Boney recalled, “and they are going all day barbecuing chickens, turkeys, ducks, pigs, sides of beef etc.”

In Texas, June 19th became the date for the annual celebrations, and its version proved to be the most enduring. The Texas festivities always included a big barbecue along with a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation followed by speeches, prayers, and entertainment like rodeos and baseball games.

In the early years, these celebrations were frequently attended by white residents, too. Anderson Jones, a formerly enslaved Texan, recalled late in his life that he was just a boy of about nine years old when freedom came, and “we commenced to have the nineteenth celebrations . . . and everybody seems like, white and black, come and get some barbecue.”

Prominent white citizens were frequently asked to deliver addresses, and they typically lectured—often condescendingly—on topics such as citizenship and self-improvement. The celebrations, nevertheless, were clearly organized by and for the African American community.

Announcement of the Emancipation Day Barbecue,  Abilene (Texas) Reporter, June 12, 1891
Announcement of the Emancipation Day Barbecue, Abilene (Texas) Reporter, June 12, 1891

As more and more black Texans became landowners, they began to acquire tracts specifically for holding Emancipation Day and other celebrations. In Houston, for example, Jack Yates, a former slave and the pastor of Antioch Baptist Church, led an effort that raised $1,000 to purchase ten acres of open land that became Emancipation Park.

The Emancipation Day holiday in Texas grew decade by decade. In 1893, the Dallas Morning News reported on the festivities in a dozen other cities ranging from Tyler to San Antonio. Many celebrations, like the one in Waco, were said to be “on a scale larger than any previous year.” Five years later, over five thousand people turned out for a barbecue at Stamps, near the Louisiana line, while fifty miles north in Texarkana a special excursion on the Cotton Belt railroad was chartered to take “almost every negro in town” to the local celebration. (The events that year were held on June 18, since the nineteenth fell on a Sunday.)

It was around this time that the holiday began to be called “Juneteenth.” As former slaves and their descendants began leaving cotton farms and migrating to Texas’s growing cities or to other states, they started making annual pilgrimages home for Juneteenth, and the day took on an additional theme of homecoming. One constant was the barbecue pit, which always took the central place at the festivities.

The popularity of Juneteenth ebbed in the twentieth century. July Fourth was already well established as a civic holiday, and nonagricultural employers were less inclined than their rural counterparts to give employees another summer day off. In 1954, the Morning News noted that the event that year “was observed with little organized activity” and that by noon “only a handful of people were present” at Fair Park,” where just a few years before the midway had swarmed with celebrating families.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s, however, revived the celebration of Juneteenth, as activists began to look back to the civic traditions of the African American past. In 1979, the Texas legislature declared June 19th an official state holiday. Long after the old dates for Emancipation celebrations had been forgotten in other states, Juneteenth has since spread beyond the borders of the Lone Star State and become an occasion to commemorate freedom and civil rights.

Last year, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire became the forty-fifth and forty-sixth states (plus the District of Columbia) to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, though unlike in Texas most of these are symbolic days of observance and not official state holidays. There is a measure in Congress to make that recognition national, and I certainly hopes it gets passed soon.

But why not take it a step further and make Juneteenth a full national holiday, complete with a big community barbecue at the center of the the celebration? It’s an American tradition that dates back a century and a half, and there’s no better way to bring people together from across the community for celebration, homecoming, and much-needed reconciliation.


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About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.