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Juneteenth -- A Celebration of Freedom!
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Then Moses said to the people, "Commemorate this day, the day you came out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, because the Lord brought you out of it with a mighty hand." Exodus 13:3

Freedom is always a cause for celebration! June 19th or Juneteenth is an unofficial holiday which commemorates the day in 1865 when the last group of enslaved African Americans were set free in Galveston, Texas. On June 19, 1865 General Gordon Granger led federal troops into the last stronghold of slavery and forced slave owners to release the African Americans. The Civil War had ended two months earlier and there were no reports of resistance or bloodshed. General Granger read to the people General Order Number 3, which began:

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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.

All slaves are free! Freedom! Can you imagine what those words must have meant? One minute you are bound and have been bound all your life, as have your mother and father before you, as were their mothers and fathers before them. You have no choice in the clothes you wear, the food you eat, or the things that you do. You are forbidden to read or write and if caught the penalty could be death. At any time, the whims of your oppressors could leave you permanently separated from your loved ones. Public gatherings with others in your community are forbidden by law without the presence of a Caucasian to oversee. Yet in a moment, all of this is behind you. You are free!

Since January 1, 1863, Galveston, Texas had been a stronghold of the Confederate. On the same day the Confederates were securing the important port at Galveston, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which stated that Americans enslaved in the Confederate States, would now be considered freedmen. Even still, the United States did not have the military capability to immediately enforce the Emancipation Proclamation in the Confederate, so slavery in the Deep South continued for months, even years later. News of the Emancipation Proclamation traveled slowly as Union forces advanced into Confederate territory, making the end of slavery in America a gradual process.

Two and one-half years later, upon hearing the news of freedom on June 19, 1865, many African Americans left Texas immediately, choosing to return to their place of birth to search for family and opportunity. Thousands of African Americans enslaved in Tennessee, Louisiana and Arkansas and had been brought to Galveston by the Confederate Government and slave owners to "protect their investment" from advancing Union forces who would set the enslaved free. Now the freedmen could be reunited with their loved ones and begin to build a life for themselves, for the first time reaping the fruit of their labor.

Over the years, Juneteenth celebrations became opportunities for reunions with friends and loved ones as annual pilgrimages were made back to Galveston, Texas on this date. As African Americans migrated to areas too distant to permit annual returns, residents organized local celebrations. Prayer services, guest speakers and community elders recounting the events of the past became highlights of the celebration, along with parades, baseball games, rodeos and barbecues.

In the early 1900s, Juneteenth celebrations declined as public schools replaced the home and church as the traditional educational basis. Most textbooks erroneously claimed that slavery ended all at once on January 1, 1863. Fortunately, the Civil Rights movement of the 50's and 60's brought a resurgence of support for celebrating Juneteenth, and since that time, annual events surrounding Juneteenth have grown nationwide.

And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Deuteronomy 4:8-9

As a nation, we celebrate the Fourth of July as a day to give honor to the European forefathers who gained their freedom from Great Britain and declared with the awesome humanitarian document, the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

As a community, we celebrate Juneteenth as a day in which the lofty goals penned 90 years earlier in the Declaration of Independence became available to all Americans. To appreciate the present we must understand and know from where God has brought us. As a nation, it is miraculous the differences in our society today and nearly one hundred fifty short years ago. Let us remember the past and God's grace and mercy, continually thank God for our present, and with hope and faith, work towards our future.

In 1899, James Weldon Johnson, noted poet, novelist, historian, diplomat, lawyer, civil rights leader, editor and songwriter, wrote "Lift Every Voice and Sing" to celebrate the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln. A year later the poem was set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson and has since become known as the Black National Anthem.

Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of liberty
Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea
Sing a song, full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song, full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won

Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come, over a way that which tears has been watered
We have come, treading out path through the blood of the slaughtered
Out of the gloomy past, till now we stand at last,
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way
Thou who hast by Thy might, led us into the light
Keep us forever in the path we pray
Lest our feet, stray from the places our God where me met Thee
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world we forget Thee
Shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand
True to our God, true to our Native Land