Juneteenth originated in Galveston, Texas in 1865, observing June 19 as Black Emancipation Day. Two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas with the news that the war was over and the slaves were free.
Many great men and women were born into slavery but overcame the odds and became politicians, thus becoming spokespersons for the many who suffered and continued to suffer even after the Emancipation Proclamation. One such person is Booker T. Washington, born April 5, 1856, in Hale’s Ford, Virginia. His mother was a slave and his father was a white plantation owner. Having been born to a slave, he was also a slave, according to the laws of that time. In 1865, they were granted their freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation. He and his mother and his siblings moved to Malden, WV to join his stepfather. At the age of nine, he worked various jobs with his mother and was even briefly hired to work on a steamboat. He became a servant to Viola Ruffner, the wife of General Lewis Ruffner. She encouraged him to attend school and study. He was soon ready for higher education and enrolled at the Hampton Agricultural and Normal Institute, where he paid himself by working. From 1878 to 1879, he went to Wayland Seminary in Washington, DC and returned to Hampton to teach. Hampton officials recommended him for a principal’s position at a similar school opening in Alabama.
He became the first director of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in 1881, the school that is now Tuskegee University. Washington befriended some very influential and prominent politicians and businessmen such as Andrew Carnegie and William Howard Taft through whom several small schools were founded to establish better educational facilities for African Americans. One of his greatest friendships was with Henry H. Rogers, who became a director of Standard Oil. Rogers, a millionaire, secretly financed 65 small rural schools for African Americans and donated money to Tuskegee and Hampton universities. Washington had become a great speaker and was recognized as a brilliant educator. His famous 1895 Atlanta Speech, urging business owners to hire African Americans instead of daily arriving immigrants and African Americans to join the workforce, changed hiring practices and attitudes and became one of the most important speeches of American history. Although he was only elected to university offices, Washington was quite influential in politics and left a huge mark on history.
Blanche K. Bruce was born into slavery on March 1, 1841, in Virginia. During her move from Virginia to Mississippi and then to Missouri, she was mentored by her teacher’s son. She escaped slavery at the start of the Civil War and attempted to enlist in the Union Army. She was denied entrance and in 1864 she moved to Hannibal, Missouri and opened the first school for blacks. Five years later, she moved to Mississippi and became involved in politics. Her appointments include Tallahatchee County Registrar of Voters, Bolivar County Tax Assessor, then Elected Sheriff and Tax Collector for the same county. On a trip to Jackson, Mississippi in 1870, Bruce made very important connections with powerful white Republicans and received several appointments that ultimately led to his recognition as the most recognized black political leader in Mississippi. In 1874, he was elected to the United States Senate by the Mississippi legislature. He convinced the government to grant land grants in the West to black immigrants and called for the desegregation of U.S. Army units. On February 14, 1879, he became the first black senator to preside over a session of the Senate. He was an advocate for the humane treatment of the Indians and became a lecturer and author of magazine articles. He died in Washington on March 17, 1898.
John Roy Lynch was born on September 10, 1847, on a plantation near Vidalia, Louisiana. His father was Patrick Lynch, a plantation manager, and his mother was Catherine White, a slave. Patrick Lynch, who was an Irish immigrant, bought his wife and his two children from the plantation owner, but due to a law in Louisiana, they had to leave the state for Lynch to free them. Lynch transferred the property of his wife and children to a friend, as he was sick and dying, with the promise that they would be treated as free individuals. However, the friend reneged on his promise and sold the family to a planter in Natchez, Mississippi.
Union forces freed John Roy, then 16, in 1863. He was working various jobs and by 1866 he was running a picture shop in Natchez and learned to read newspapers and books and was quite interested in parliamentary law. In 1868, he made a series of speeches in support of Mississippi legislation that legalized all slave marriages. In 1869, the Natchez Republican Club sent him to discuss political appointments with the military governor of Mississippi. Impressed with his performance, he was appointed a justice of the peace and that same year he was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives. He worked closely with Blanche K. Bruce, working primarily on civil rights for blacks. Given his birth as a slave and lack of formal education, he really had a huge impact on African Americans.
Like many people who pilgrimage back to Galveston, Texas every year to remember the actions of ancestors that made a difference, we should celebrate June 19 no matter what your heritage is, as all of our ancestors they made sacrifices and stood up for what they believed in. so that we have reached the positions that we have today. Go on a family outing, a picnic, a celebration, just like you would celebrate the 4th of July, because that’s what it’s all about; celebrating the freedom you have thanks to the dedication and beliefs of those who walked that path before us and for us.