On the 9th of April in 1865, the Civil War in the United States ended when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox courthouse. In what would be another cruel irony of the war, armies unaware would fight for another month with the last battle in the south of Texas at Palmito Ranch in early May of 1865. Real battles were being waged despite the war being over. The men who lost their lives were caught between the ultimate reality of a cease-fire and the bloody here-and-now.
But this battle at Palmito Ranch (a confederate victory in yet another irony) was not seen by the locals as ending anything. For another month, life continued in Texas as if Lee had never waved the white flag. But soon, Union soldiers would scour the country with tidings of joy and news of emancipation.
It was on this, the 19th of June in 1865, that Major General Gordon Granger read aloud general order number 3 from his headquarters. He proclaimed,
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.
Men, women, and children who woke up in bondage were set free that afternoon. The proclamation of the good news, already accomplished, would have them unshackled. For many, this day had been anticipated, but few believed it would ever come. It had been two and a half years since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but it was more gesture than reality for those in the South. For slaves, their lives were caught between the ultimate truth of a proclaimed emancipation and the reality of bondage in the here-and-now.
The 19th of June in 1865, the day that Major General Granger read general order number 3, would be hailed as Emancipation day, also known as Juneteenth, for the former slaves and celebrated as a state holiday in Texas. It was a holiday in conversation with the Fourth of July as former slaves could see the equality expressed in the founding documents with the equality finally proclaimed with the Emancipation Proclamation and applied with the ratifying of the 13th Amendment. And the 13th Amendment, which formally abolished slavery, wasn’t ratified until the end of 1865, months after the 19th of June.
As a historian and a Christian, I am often drawn to the stories of the African American experience. The deep faith of these enslaved people would forge some of the most significant art this country has ever produced, from spirituals to poems to autobiographies, and to music, literature, and culinary advancements. I cannot read the story of the Exodus without connecting it with parallels to the African American experience. Unfortunately for many slaves, the story of the Exodus was removed for “slave bibles” that were edited to discourage uprisings. It is a telling indictment that slave owners saw themselves as more like Pharaoh and less like the Israelites.
The story of Juneteenth is one of living between proclamation and emancipation, and the story of the Christian faith is one of living in that same tension. “It is finished,” Jesus cried aloud on the cross, and with that, the power of sin, death, and the devil was crushed. But our emancipation into that reality waits. We live in the “now and not-yet” of Christian hope and Gospel fulfillment. Just as Major General Granger proclaimed freedom to those slaves in Texas, freedom has been declared to all people in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Juneteenth is a secular holiday with historical implications, but it is also a gospel holiday – a good news holiday – with implications for history and beyond.