As the nation and Virginia prepares to celebrate Juneteenth, our new entry by Lauranett Lee takes a look at how the poignant celebration of the belated emancipation of the Black residents of Galveston, Texas, became a nationwide holiday incorporating a number of Freedom Day traditions, including those celebrated in Virginia.
And while Juneteenth lays claim to being the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States, Virginia can lay claim to one of the first recorded celebrations of emancipation—a full two and a half years before Juneteenth.
This isn’t surprising because if the enslaved residents of Galveston were among the last to taste emancipation on June 19, 1865—ten weeks after Robert E. Lee’s surrender effectively ended the Civil War—enslaved Virginians were among the first. Some four years earlier, on May 23, 1861, three enslaved men who were being used in the Confederate war effort in Hampton self-emancipated to Fort Monroe, a Union outpost on Old Point Comfort. In doing so, Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend set in motion a series of events that would lead to the Emancipation Proclamation.
Fort Monroe commander Benjamin Butler refused to return the men to their enslaver, a Confederate colonel named Charles K. Mallory, and instead proclaimed them “contraband of war” and liable to seizure by the federal government. This led to the passage of the First Confiscation Act (1861), which freed enslaved people being used in the Confederate war effort, the Second Confiscation Act (1862), which permanently freed those enslaved people held by Confederate officers and civilians in Union-occupied areas, and eventually, the Emancipation Proclamation.
The actions of Baker, Mallory, and Townsend also opened the way for other enslaved Virginians to self-emancipate. Within a month of their arrival at Fort Monroe, they were joined by some 900 additional Black Americans seeking freedom, who formed a community nearby that continued to grow as “contrabands” flooded to the safety of Union encampments.
On January 1, 1863, the day the Emancipation Proclamation officially freed the formerly enslaved in states that had seceded, this free Black community marched joyfully through the streets of Norfolk 4,000 strong, in what is likely one of the first large-scale emancipation celebrations. In addition to a parade, there was a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. These features, along with picnics, speeches, and storytelling, would form the heart of freedom celebrations from Norfolk to Galveston.
Other African American communities in Virginia celebrated emancipation in ways that reflected their experiences with the end of slavery. The Black community in Loudon County celebrated September 22, the day that Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Like the Black community in Houston that purchased a fairground specifically for Juneteenth celebrations, the Loudon County Emancipation Association purchased “emancipation grounds” in Purcellville, where it held an annual celebration that attracted 1,000 visitors well into the early part of the twentieth century.
In Richmond, Emancipation Day was celebrated on April 3, the day that Union troops liberated that city, while the African American community of Alexandria celebrated April 7, the date in 1864 when the new state Constitution abolished slavery in Northern Virginia and other areas under Union control.
As Lee notes in her entry, “As some of these historic commemorations faded in the second half of the twentieth century, Juneteenth, one of the oldest celebrations of the end of slavery, gained popularity with the increased interest in African American history and culture. Juneteenth celebrations became popular throughout the country as a centralized date to celebrate Black emancipation.”
So it’s appropriate that Virginia was one of the first states to make Juneteenth an official state holiday, following in the footsteps of Texas, and all Virginians can say “Happy Juneteenth.”