The original Juneteenth order forcing Texas to release slaves is on display at Fair Park

On June 19, 1865, Union Army General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston with a document outlining official orders from the federal government announcing that enslaved people were free.

The military orders began the enforcement in Texas of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which had been signed two years prior. And the orders are the foundation of Juneteenth, a federal holiday that commemorates the day freedmen in Texas finally learned of their emancipation, and represents the end of slavery after the Civil War.

News spread to about 250,000 enslaved people in the state, according to Kaitlyn Price, registrar for the Dallas Historical Society, which owns the only known original printed copy of the orders, on display through the summer in the Hall of Heroes at the Hall of State at Fair Park.

Granger’s General Order No. 3 says: “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.”

The order echoes the American Declaration of Independence and the “self-evident truth” that all men are created equal, said Annette Gordon-Reed, a Harvard professor and author of On Juneteenth, a book of essays about Texas, her family and the day enslaved people in Texas learned of their emancipation. “It was a momentous statement to make,” she said.

The last battle of the Civil War was in Texas and the Confederacy won but the war was over and they surrendered. This then allowed Granger to travel to Galveston and announce General Orders No. 3, which said slavery was over, she said. The order was only the beginning. The former enslaved people knew there would be a struggle ahead of them including fighting for voting rights, Gordon-Reed said.

“They knew they were human beings, but that the law would treat them that way,” she said.

Further, the order allowed enslaved people to reconnect with their families.

“One of the most traumatic things about the institution of slavery was the dissolution and disconnection that came about when people were sold away from one another,” Gordon-Reed said. “It was an assurance that that could not happen anymore.”

The celebration of General Order No. 3 was about restoring families, said Sanfrena Britt, chief diversity officer at Texas A&M University – Central Texas. These families that had been torn apart because they had no agency over themselves could now reconnect.

“The celebration was the result of being free… to marry, to have say about their own bodies, and now to own property instead of being owned as property,” she said. “These were people who were now acknowledged as a full human being, whereas before they were only acknowledged as chattel property.”

The general orders advised former enslaved people to remain at their present homes. But they were now free agents to work for wages instead of unpaid labor. Still, “this freedom meant that they could not be idle or they would be arrested,” she said.

Additionally, former enslaved people would not be allowed to go to military posts for assistance, according to the general’s orders. The military posts were previously set up to offer items food and clothing to indigenous people who kept their treaties. The support would not be extended to former enslaved people, Britt said.

“They had no concept of fair wages, but they were turned out to compete with others for employment, with nothing but their knowledge for working on plantations or for wealthy families,” she said.

Britt said it’s important to remember history properly because it plays a role in how society moves forward. Most of the history of Black communities relates to former slaves or descendants of former slaves. It’s not enough, she said, society must understand what that meant for them, too.

“So, looking backwards at that history helps you to understand where we are now, and why we celebrate with the African-American community when they celebrate being liberated from bondage,” Britt said.

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