Today is Juneteenth, also known as Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day, a US holiday that commemorates the June 19th, 1865, announcement of the abolition of slavery in the state of Texas, and more generally the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans throughout the former Confederacy of the southern United States. The name is a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth.” Juneteenth is recognized as a state holiday or special day of observance in forty-five US states, observed primarily in local celebrations. Traditions include public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, singing traditional songs such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, and reading of works by noted African-American writers such as Ralph Ellison and Maya Angelou. Celebrations may include rodeos, street fairs, cookouts, family reunions, park parties, historical reenactments, or Miss Juneteenth contests.
During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22nd, 1862, with an effective date of January 1st, 1863. It declared that all enslaved persons in the Confederate States of America in rebellion and not in Union hands were to be freed. This excluded the five states known later as border states, which were the four “slave states” not in rebellion—Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri—and those counties of Virginia soon to form the state of West Virginia, and also the three zones under Union occupation: the state of Tennessee, lower Louisiana, and Southeast Virginia. Because it was isolated geographically, Texas was not a battleground, and thus the people held there as slaves were not affected by the Emancipation Proclamation unless they escaped. Planters and other slaveholders had migrated into Texas from eastern states to escape the fighting, and many brought enslaved people with them, increasing by the thousands the enslaved population in the state at the end of the Civil War.Although most enslaved people lived in rural areas, more than 1000 resided in both Galveston and Houston by 1860, with several hundred in other large towns. By 1865, there were an estimated 250,000 enslaved people in Texas.
The news of Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9th moved slowly, and didn’t reach Texas until May 1865. The Army of the Trans-Mississippi did not surrender until June 2nd. On June 18th, Union Army general Gordon Granger arrived at Galveston Island with 2,000 federal troops to occupy Texas on behalf of the federal government. The following day, standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, Granger read aloud the contents of “General Order No. 3”, announcing the total emancipation of those held as slaves:
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, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.
Formerly enslaved people in Galveston rejoiced in the streets after the announcement, although in the years afterward many struggled against resistance from whites. The following year, freedmen organized the first of what became the annual celebration of Juneteenth in Texas. In some cities African-Americans were barred from using public parks because of state-sponsored segregation of facilities. Across parts of Texas, freed people pooled their funds to purchase land to hold their celebrations, such as Houston’s Emancipation Park, Mexia’s Booker T. Washington Park, and Emancipation Park in Austin.
Although the date is sometimes referred to as the “traditional end of slavery in Texas,” abolition was not given (state) legal status until a series of Texas Supreme Court decisions between 1868 and 1874. In the early 20th century, economic and political forces led to a decline in Juneteenth celebrations. From 1890 to 1908, Texas and all former Confederate states passed new constitutions or amendments that effectively disenfranchised African-Americans, excluding them from the political process. White-dominated state legislatures passed Jim Crow laws imposing second-class status. The Great Depression forced many African-American people off farms and into the cities to find work. In these urban environments, African Americans had difficulty taking the day off to celebrate.
The Second Great Migration began during World War II, when many African-Americans migrated to the West Coast where skilled jobs in the defense industry were opening up. From 1940 until 1970, in the second wave of the Great Migration, more than 5 million African-Americans left Texas, Louisiana and other parts of the South for the North and West Coast. By the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement focused the attention of African-American youth on the struggle for racial equality and the future. But, many linked these struggles to the historical struggles of their ancestors. Following the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign to Washington D.C. called by Rev. Ralph Abernathy, many attendees returned home and initiated Juneteenth celebrations in areas where the day was not previously celebrated.
Since the 1980s and 1990s, the holiday has been more widely celebrated among African-American communities. In 1994 a group of community leaders gathered at Christian Unity Baptist Church in New Orleans, Louisiana to work for greater national celebration of Juneteenth. Informal Juneteenth observances have spread to many other states, and even outside the United states. US military bases in other countries sponsor celebrations, in addition to those of private groups. Organizations such as the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation are working toward gaining Congressional approval to designate Juneteenth as a national day of observance.
In 1980, Texas was the first state to establish Juneteenth as a state holiday under legislation introduced by freshman Democratic state representative Al Edwards. Juneteenth is a “skeleton crew” day in the state; government offices do not close but agencies may operate with reduced staff. By 2008, nearly half of US states observed the holiday as a ceremonial observance. As of May 2016, when the Maryland legislature approved official recognition of the holiday, 45 of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have recognized Juneteenth as either a state holiday or ceremonial holiday, a day of observance. States that do not recognize it are Hawaii, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota and South Dakota.
In 1996 the first legislation to recognize “Juneteenth Independence Day” was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, H.J. Res. 195, sponsored by Barbara-Rose Collins (D-MI). In 1997 Congress recognized the day through Senate Joint Resolution 11 and House Joint Resolution 56. In 2013 the U.S. Senate passed Senate Resolution 175, acknowledging Lula Briggs Galloway (late president of the National Association of Juneteenth Lineage) who “successfully worked to bring national recognition to Juneteenth Independence Day”, and the continued leadership of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. In 2018 Apple added Juneteenth to its calendars in iOS under official US holidays.
You have to go with a Texas recipe on this date, which moves Texas BBQ and Texas chili to the front of the line for a day. “American cuisine” as a generic category is actually more or less meaningless. “As American as apple pie,” for example, is ridiculous. Apples are not indigenous to North America, and Europeans were making apple pies before Columbus even set sail. Most of what passes for “American cuisine” in diners and restaurants across the US is a set of standard dishes from Europe. Hamburgers and hot dogs can – perhaps – be put in a special category of dishes that have roots in Germany, but reached a classic form in the US. You can expand that special category somewhat if you care to, but it’s not much. The regional cooking of the US is a different tale. There are hundreds of regional specialties that are legitimately local cuisine, even if they have antecedents in other cultures. Texas chili most definitely fits the bill. There are cooking contests throughout Texas with myriad recipes, with only one common rule: Texas chili does not have beans in it. What spices you use, how hot it is, whether you chop or grind the meat, etc. etc. etc. are subjects of endless disagreements, and there may be as many recipes as there are Texans. This site gives recipes for award winning chilis: https://www.dallasnews.com/life/cooking/2018/02/22/best-real-texas-chili-recipes-no-beans-allowed In making chili the number and type of ingredients vary enormously, but one rule should be paramount – cook your chili for a very long time (and refrigerate it overnight). Very slow simmering plus overnight refrigeration marries complex flavors producing a deeper and richer result. I use this as a cardinal rule for all my soups and stews. I prefer my Texas chili to be made from chopped, rather than ground beef. Chuck is my favored cut.
My basic recipe is to peel and dice an onion, and cook it over low heat in a skillet with a little vegetable oil until the onion begins to turn color. Then I turn up the heat, add the beef, and brown it on all sides. At the tail end of the process, I add 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely diced, and some diced bell pepper. When the meat has browned I cover it with rich beef stock, plus a can of diced tomatoes and some tomato puree. For seasonings I add in sliced hot red peppers, cumin, oregano, chili powder, and paprika. I let the whole pot simmer for several hours, replenishing the stock if the dish gets too dry. Most Texas cooks use a deep saucepan rather than a skillet, because the stock does not evaporate so quickly in a saucepan. Either way, the finished product should not be soupy, but should have a thick sauce clinging to the meat. Both the tomato puree and dry spices are key to thickening the sauce.
I have been deliberately vague about my cooking technique here because it varies from batch to batch. You have to go to Texas to get the real deal to begin with, and then you have to adjust everything to suit your tastes. If I have not said it enough already in previous posts: taste the sauce repeatedly and often, and adjust your seasonings as you go. Some years ago, I took to adding a little finely diced onion to the sauce at the tail end of cooking, right before serving. I don’t like adding completely raw onion as a garnish to the finished bowl, as some Texans do, but I like the brightness that freshly cooked onion adds. Your choice.