On September 22, 1862, five days after the Union won the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that as of January 1, 1863, “all persons held as slaves within any States, or designated part of the State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” The final proclamation was soon issued, and it also authorized the recruitment of African Americans as Union soldiers in the Civil War.
However, the Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately free most enslaved African Americans in the South. Freedom came for most two years later, after the Union won the Civil War. Juneteenth is symbolically celebrated as the end of slavery because June 19, 1865 was the day that Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, arrived in Galveston, Texas with the news that the Civil War had ended and enslaved people were now free. I often wonder about the day my enslaved ancestors were told that they were free. Undoubtedly, this was a dream come true for millions.
Luckily, an elderly cousin, the late Cousin Isaac “Ike” Deberry Sr. (1914-2009), recalled a special story that his maternal grandfather – my great-grandfather William “Bill” Reed (1846-1937) of Tate County, Mississippi – had shared with him about that day. Cousin Ike had a remarkably close relationship with Grandpa Bill and remembered many things my great-grandfather had shared with him. Although he was a reserved man, I am told, Grandpa Bill was not tight-lipped about his experiences during slavery in South Carolina. Cousin Ike relayed so many mouth-dropping stories that Grandpa Bill had told him, that this vast amount of valuable oral history was the solid foundation of 150 Years Later: Broken Ties Mended.
Fortunately, Cousin Ike recalled, “Grandpa told me that on the day they got freed, Lem Reid came out on his porch and called all the slaves up to the house and said to them, ‘Y’all are as free as I am.’ He asked them to stay on the place to help him bring in the crop and he promised to pay them. Grandpa said that they stayed for a lil while and then they decided to follow this man to Mississippi to make a better living for themselves.”
In an earlier recollection, Cousin Ike had shared that an unknown man from Mississippi came to Abbeville, South Carolina and told them that “Mississippi was the land of milk and honey with fat pigs running around with apples in their mouths.”
Cousin Ike further shared, “Hearing that there were fat pigs running around with apples in their mouths got them all excited.” Grandpa Bill, a younger sister Mary, and others moved to near Senatobia, Mississippi around January 1866. Just last year, DNA led me to discover that Grandpa Bill and Aunt Mary left a sister, Louvenia Thompson, back in Abbeville. She decided not to come, and the siblings never saw each other again. Aunt Mary had a daughter a year later. She named her Louvenia.
Many can imagine the sheer happiness our enslaved ancestors felt when they heard, “Y’all are now free.” Many can imagine the tears shed for those who didn’t live to see that day. Many can also imagine the enduring pain that many of our newly-freed ancestors still had because they couldn’t enjoy the news with loved ones who had been sold away. Nonetheless, Juneteenth, and all “Freedom Days” that occurred shortly before and afterwards, were great turning points not only in Black History, but in American history. Happy Juneteenth!