Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared all enslaved individuals in rebel states free, on January 1, 1863. But the institution of chattel slavery in the United States only came to an end in June 1865—two months after Confederate commander Robert E. Lee surrendered and a full two-and-a-half years after the original proclamation was signed.
When General Gordon Granger and his army of 2,000 soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to quell a remaining pocket of resistance, he issued a formal military order informing thousands of people of their newfound freedom. Ahead of the 154th anniversary of this June 19 declaration—now widely recognized as Juneteenth, a second American Independence Day—historians at the National Archives have located the handwritten order itself, reports Michael Ruane for the Washington Post. The document is likely the earliest existing copy of the decree.
“This is done June 19, 1865. This would have been done the day of,” says Trevor Plante, director of a textual records division at the archives, to the Post. “It’s in good shape. You can read it, and it’s legible.”
Written in ornate cursive by a general’s aide and signed by Maj. F.W. Emery on behalf of Granger, “General Orders No. 3” had long been hidden in a book of formal orders housed at the archives. Per a statement, the decree will be digitized and added to the National Archives’ catalog.
The announcement states:
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.
Plante tells the Post that the general likely felt compelled to issue the decree. Texas newspapers had previously published news of the Emancipation Proclamation, but the state’s Confederate constitution prohibited freeing enslaved people, so the order was ignored until Granger arrived with a show of force, writes Afi-Odelia Scruggs in a separate story for the Washington Post.
In 1866, African Americans marked the anniversary of the June 19 order as Emancipation Day. Celebrations later expanded to include family gatherings, barbecues, parades and concerts, William Wiggins Jr., a folklorist at Indiana University and author of Jubilation: African American Celebrations in the Southeast, told Smithsonian magazine’s Ashley Luthern in 2009. As Wiggins noted, the holiday’s name was subsequently shortened to Juneteenth.
The tradition of celebrating emancipation spread beyond Texas through migration and, eventually, the civil rights movement. At the conclusion of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, which found activists marching on Washington, D.C. in protest of economic injustice, a group of Texans suggested closing the march with a Juneteenth celebration.
“My theory is that these delegates for the summer took that idea of the celebration back to their respective communities,” Wiggins explained to Smithsonian.
Amid Black Lives Matter protests across the world, awareness of Juneteenth has spiked, writes Brandon Ogbunu in a Wired article titled “Why Juneteenth Went Viral.” Per NPR’s Marisa Peñaloza, calls to make Juneteenth a federal holiday are gaining traction nationwide. Plante, meanwhile, was asked to search for the document in response to current interest in the holiday, according to the Post.
In an interview with the New York Times’ Nikita Stewart and Juliana Kim, Mary Elliott, curator of American slavery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, emphasizes the closing words of the 1865 order: “The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
As Elliott notes, “That basically says you’re free, but you best know your place.”
Juneteenth is not simply a day for celebrating the end of slavery in the United States, she adds, but for reflecting on the country’s history of slavery.
“I would hate for this moment to go by like, this is for the black people,” says Elliott. “No, this is for Americans. It is very much an intimate holiday for African Americans, but stop and reflect on the meaning of freedom in this country and the application of it.”