On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed a law making June 19, Juneteenth, a recognized federal holiday.
What some Kentuckians might not know, however, is the holiday has a connection to the Commonwealth, thanks to Civil War General Gordon Granger, who is buried in Lexington Cemetery.
What is Juneteenth?
According to Dr. Amy Murrell Taylor, a professor of history at the University of Kentucky whose work focuses on the 19th century American South, the holiday commemorates the abolition of slavery.
“Juneteenth commemorates Emancipation — it celebrates the liberation of nearly four million men, women, and children from slavery during and after the American Civil War,” Taylor said. “It celebrates the longstanding, decades-long struggle of enslaved people to liberate themselves that achieved a monumental victory in 1865.”
Although the Emancipation Proclamation made slavery illegal in 1862, in practice the freeing of enslaved people depended heavily on enforcement by the Union Army, wending its way into the South in the years following the Civil War. Texas, as the southernmost slave state, did not have a strong Union presence to enforce the law effectively.
On June 19, 1865, Union General Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, assuming command of the Union troops already there, ensuring a peaceful transfer of power and nullifying any laws made while the state was under Confederate governance.
Upon arriving, one of his first acts was General Order No. 3, which informed Texans that all enslaved people were free once and for all. Taylor said it signified that “the freedom promised by the Emancipation Proclamation would now be enforced and protected by the U.S. government.”
Taylor said of June 19, “Before that date, the United States Army had not extended its reach into Texas, so the proclamation had not been implemented there. But General Gordon Granger’s order on June 19, 1865, changed that — and was worthy of joyous celebration.”
Granger’s public reading resulted in celebratory demonstrations by those freed to commemorate the abolition of slavery, which became what is known as Juneteenth. The day has been observed annually on June 19 since 1865 and is now a federal holiday following Biden’s signing of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on June 17.
Juneteenth is one of several days celebrating the end of slavery during the year; Taylor said this is because “Emancipation came at different moments in different places.”
“Even as freed people in Texas were rejoicing on June 19, 1865, there were still tens of thousands of men, women, and children still legally enslaved in Kentucky. The state had been exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation. So it would not be until December 6, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was ratified, that all enslaved people in Kentucky were legally free,” Taylor said. The Thirteenth Amendment officially made chattel slavery illegal.
Granger’s connection to Kentucky
Granger has several ties to the Commonwealth.
“During the Civil War he commanded U.S. troops in the Western theater, including in Kentucky for nearly a year as commander of the Army of Kentucky, before being sent to Texas at the end of the war,” Taylor said.
Soldiers from Kentucky also accompanied him to Texas, Taylor said.
“Among the troops that arrived in Texas with General Granger were several regiments of United States Colored Troops from central Kentucky,” she said. “That means hundreds of men who had been enslaved in Kentucky were among the soldiers who headed to Texas to liberate and protect the freedom of enslaved people there.”
Taylor said Granger married Maria Letcher, a woman from Lexington, in 1869.
They are both buried in the Lexington Cemetery.
At 10 a.m. on Saturday, there will be a service and wreath-laying ceremony at Granger’s grave to commemorate his involvement in the history of Juneteenth.