The 1865 Handwritten Order Marking Juneteenth Has Been Found

The 1865 Handwritten Order Marking Juneteenth Has Been Found

The 1865 Handwritten Order Marking Juneteenth Has Been Found

The 1865 Handwritten Order Marking Juneteenth Has Been Found

Archivists in Washington, D.C., made a timely discovery this week: the original handwritten Union Army record of an order that brought emancipation to enslaved people in Texas at the end of the Civil War.

General Order No. 3 was read aloud by a Union officer, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, in Galveston on June 19, 1865, to inform Texans that all enslaved people in the state were free. That date, which became known as Juneteenth, has been celebrated ever since.

But the handwritten record had been buried in a leather-bound book at the National Archives in Washington, with its location largely unknown — even though, for decades, the book has been available to researchers to leaf through upon request.

The discovery was spurred by Michael Davis, a public affairs specialist for the National Archives who was writing a piece about the history of the holiday.

“In light of what has happened recently in our nation with police brutality, I wanted to make sure that we highlighted Juneteenth,” Mr. Davis said in an interview. He asked his colleagues if the archives had any documents from that day in 1865, hoping to find something but not sure that he would.

Trevor K. Plante, the director of archival operations at the National Archives building in Washington, zeroed in on the Union Army records from Texas. And on Thursday, in the stacks on the 10th tier of the building’s west side, he found a leather-bound book with a June 19 entry in neat cursive.

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” it said. “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 document, encased in its original binding, was legible and in good condition, Mr. Plante said. “It’s more powerful when you see the handwritten version of it, as opposed to the printed versions that came much later,” he added, referring to the copies of Civil War documents that were compiled by the United States War Department (a precursor to the Department of Defense) around the end of the 19th century.

Credit…National Archives

General Granger marched into Texas with about 2,000 troops in June 1865, two months after Gen. Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy surrendered to Union forces at Appomattox, Va., marking what some historians have called the beginning of the end of the deadliest war in American history.

The announcement would not have been a total surprise. People in Texas knew that the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed two years earlier — in fact, some slave owners had moved to Texas, the westernmost Confederate state, to escape the reach of Union enforcers.

The June 19 order did not merely call for enslaved people to be free; it also advised them to “remain at their present homes and work for wages,” and it warned that “they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

As Mr. Davis wrote in his article on Friday, “the racist language used in the last sentences foreshadowed that the fight for equal rights would continue.”

Some plantation owners in Texas resisted or delayed emancipation despite the order, and the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery across the United States, was not ratified until December 1865. After that, black people still faced lynchings, discriminatory laws and voter suppression, as well as white supremacist violence that continues to this day.

Still, Juneteenth became a day of celebration for generations of African-American families across the United States who have gathered annually for parades, barbecues, music and storytelling. And this year, after weeks of nationwide protests over racism, police brutality and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and many others, there is a renewed interest in the history of the holiday.

Major companies like Nike, Target and Twitter have added Juneteenth as a paid holiday. And senators including John Cornyn of Texas, Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Tina Smith of Minnesota and Ed Markey of Massachusetts have proposed bills to make the day a federal holiday.

Mr. Davis said he was glad to see more people interested in the history and the celebration of Juneteenth. “I think it is really significant that we are able to showcase this historical document because it raises awareness about African-American history,” he said.


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