While I do not make a habit of excusing the ignorance of President Trump, his failure to recognize Juneteenth as an important celebration for Black Americans is probably shared of many white people.
By state law, "Juneteenth Independence Day" has been a state commemorative event since 2005. The celebrations go back to June 19, 1865, when a U.S. Army major general issued an order freeing the people still being held in slavery, though the Confederacy had surrendered in April.
Texas was the last Confederate state to be fully occupied by federal forces, and many slave owners there refused to acknowledge the end of the war until forced to do so when Major Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Order Number 3.
The order stated that "all slaves are free." The general went on: "This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves." While the order did legally free the enslaved, the freedmen would soon learn how meaningless the promise of "absolute equality" really was.
Outside of Texas, most commemorations were referred to as emancipation celebrations, at least in the press. Many took place on Jan. 1, when President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation took effect. For example, on Jan. 1, 1910, the Lincoln Emancipation Club in Little Rock sponsored a commemoration at Wesley Chapel, a Methodist church.
I was surprised to find that many celebrations occurred in August, in honor of the Aug. 1, 1834, abolition of slavery in the British colonies. In 1904, residents of Desha County in southeast Arkansas celebrated on Aug. 6, "in honor of the anniversary of emancipation of the slaves in the British West Indies."
The editor of the local paper in Arkansas City explained that "because it was the first emancipation, colored people celebrate it rather than the anniversary of the issuance of Lincoln's famous document." Sometimes the celebrations were in honor of both British and American emancipation, such as an Aug. 12, 1897, commemoration in Little Rock.
The earliest Arkansas celebration I could find in newspapers took place on Aug. 8, 1871, in Fayetteville. It celebrated the anniversary of emancipation in the British West Indies. Another occurred in Little Rock on July 4, 1873, when a Black Little Rock minister, Rev. Henry H. White, addressed the Sons of Honor, a Black fraternal group.
A large emancipation celebration was held in Helena in August 1888, a particularly divisive time for the races in Arkansas as the entrenched Democratic Party faced a serious challenge by an unlikely coalition of Republicans, labor and farmer groups. The Arkansas Democrat reported several former Black Republican officeholders in Crittenden County attended the rally, men who had recently been physically forced from office by white mobs.
Picnicking, social activities and sporting competitions were a part of most celebrations from the beginning. In August 1897, a statewide celebration drew thousands to Little Rock's spacious and apparently integrated West End Park. Athletic events included foot races, bicycle races and a baseball game between Little Rock and Hot Springs, while socializing included "a grand display of fireworks" and a cake walk, followed by "a grand ball in the pavilion." Brass and string bands performed.
In 1905 the Philander Smith College Chorus entertained an emancipation observance in Little Rock, and the audience joined the chorus in singing "My Country 'Tis of Thee."
Many of the larger celebrations included reading poems as well as the Emancipation Proclamation. The 1905 event included the reading of an original poem by Frank Barbour Coffin, a local pharmacist and prolific poet.
Celebrations often involved oratory. Most of the speakers were locally prominent Black men, although Mrs. Charlotte Stephens, Little Rock's first Black teacher who would eventually serve an incredible 70 years in the classroom, gave a "paper" on "lessons from history" at the 1910 celebration in the capital city.
M.W. Gibbs, long remembered by Black Arkansans for being elected as America's first Black judge in 1873, spoke at a 1902 celebration in Pine Bluff. Joseph C. Corbin, the founder of Branch Normal College (today known as the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff), was another regular speaker.
Occasionally prominent speakers were brought in from out of state. Henry M. Turner of Georgia, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and later a proponent of the back-to-Africa emigration movement, spoke at the 1895 celebration in Pine Bluff. The editor of the Pine Bluff Daily Graphic wrote that Turner "is said to be the ablest colored divine in the South."
White newspaper editors seldom published detailed accounts of the oratory. However, in 1898 the Arkansas Gazette ran a verbatim account of an Emancipation Day speech given by Joseph A. Booker, longtime president of Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock. While Booker's historical legacy is complicated, he was very conservative in his approach to race relations and was often quoted by the white press.
This sentence will give you an idea of Booker's approach: "Nothing discourages me more than the sight of a great gang of finely dressed young Negroes pressing the pavements of a beautiful city or holding up its electric light posts."
The white press did not publish details about the speakers at the 1897 celebration in Little Rock who promoted "a view of petitioning the Congress of the United States for pensions" for ex-slaves.
With the passage of time, opposition developed to the role commerce played in the celebrations. Railroad and streetcar companies often promoted emancipation events. For example, in 1902, the Iron Mountain Railroad organized special trains to transport celebrants, charging a $2 fee for a round trip to the celebration in Pine Bluff from Arkadelphia. Nineteen passenger cars were used to ferry Pine Bluff residents to Stamps for a celebration in 1900.
The most blatant abuse occurred in 1902 when, according to the Pine Bluff Daily Graphic, "the celebration was under the management of J.W. Douglas of Little Rock, employed in the excursion department of the Cotton Belt railroad, and he made a great success of it."
By 1901, Black Methodist ministers had all the commercialization they could stomach. The Methodist Ministers Union of Little Rock in that year adopted a resolution charging that emancipation celebrations had been "perverted into channels of greed and gain ..."
Tom Dillard was the founding director of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock. He lives in retirement in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]