Juneteenth’s roots in Arkansas are deep. The celebration, just recognized as a federal holiday, originated in Texas in 1865. Over the years, the tradition spread. Black Arkansans have been celebrating it for more than 100 years. Juneteenth’s origin is linked to the limited nature of the Emancipation Proclamation. Announced on January 1, 1863 (after a preliminary warning in fall 1862), Lincoln’s decree was a fairly narrow war measure, issued as commander in chief, only declaring freedom for enslaved people held in territory still under Confederate control. Practically, the policy was meaningless unless enslaved people could reach United States forces. Runaways from slavery, then, made true the words on paper, and gave the proclamation its power to weaken the Confederacy. Thousands of Arkansans did so, including more than 5,000 men who took the additional risk of fighting for the United States Army against the Confederacy.
For many enslaved people in Texas, however, distance prevented them from claiming the promise of the proclamation until Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger’s forces arrived in Galveston and moved inland in June 1865. Granger’s celebrated General Order No. 3, issued on June 19, essentially reiterated the Emancipation Proclamation and declared “all slaves are free” and optimistically asserted “an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.” While it took the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution later in the year to officially disallowed chattel slavery throughout the U.S., Black Texans understandably continued to cherish June 19, celebrating annually in an event that came to be known as “Juneteenth.” Black Arkansans joined them in this commemoration at least as early as 1900.
Because enslavers forced thousands of enslaved Arkansans to Texas during the war to keep them out of the U.S. Army’s reach, many Arkansans experienced Juneteenth for themselves. It is likely that freedpeople who returned to Arkansas after the war would have celebrated the date long before it appears in the archival record.
By the 1910s, the event was tradition in Arkansas. In many parts of the state it was understood that employers and mill managers would halt production that day to allow for its full celebration. Participants enjoyed baseball games, boxing matches, speeches, singing, dances, horse races and more. Some people observed by simply enjoying a day off to go fishing. The lumber town of Stamps, childhood home of Maya Angelou, renowned for its large and festive gatherings, became a destination for those looking to relax and enjoy the holiday. After all, like Texans, enslaved people in Southwest Arkansas did not achieve emancipation until the arrival of U.S. soldiers late in the war. The date became so sacred there that Allen H. Hamiter, during his few days as acting governor in 1908, granted the request of Lafayette County officials (who feared outrage by African Americans there) to move the execution date of a Black prisoner from June 19 to June 26. In 1942, the union then known as the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers negotiated its first successful contract in Arkansas, with the Arkansas Fertilizer Company in Little Rock, which stipulated that Juneteenth be one of the workers’ paid holidays.
As established and revered as the holiday became, however, Juneteenth is only the most recent form of emancipation celebration in Arkansas. Newspaper accounts show that since at least as early as 1867, Black Arkansans had been organizing events publicly celebrating January 1 to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation. They certainly had been celebrating before that. Black troops commemorated the date of Lincoln’s proclamation during the war, as expressed by the fighting song of the First Arkansas Colored Regiment: “We heard the proclamation, master hush it as he will/The bird he sing it to us upon the cotton hill/And the possum up the gumtree he could not keep it still/And he went climbing on (chorus)/They said, ‘Now colored brethren you will be forever free/From the First of January eighteen hundred sixty-three.’ We heard it in the river rushing to the sea/And it went sounding on.”
For this first generation of freed people the January 1 celebration was especially profound because enslaved people often deeply dreaded the date. It was the day that most new labor contracts were set to begin — meaning that for enslaved people whose labor was rented out to other whites, this was the date they were sent away from their homes to a new worksite and to their temporary, and possibly previously unknown, “master.” January 1 was also usually the day new overseers, who rarely stayed in the same place for more than a few years, began their work. Enslaved farmers braced themselves to learn how brutal the newcomer might be. Enslaved people in both circumstances suffered a gnawing uncertainty. So while celebrating emancipation on January 1 aligned with the historic date of Lincoln’s proclamation, it also reclaimed a historically dreaded time of year, converting it into something joyous instead.
Many of the January 1 celebrations of the early 20th century were organized by church and business leaders. But although men dominated those circles, Black women helped organize and execute the events, and appeared on early 20th-century programs in roles beyond singing, playing music or reading poems. In January celebrations of that era it was almost always a woman who enjoyed the honor of reading the Emancipation Proclamation. In an era when women’s public speaking was still controversial, women seized the opportunities offered by emancipation celebrations to lecture to crowds numbering in the hundreds. In January 1912, Mary H. Speight, first president of the Arkansas Association of Colored Women, presented “Emancipation of Women,” while Mary Jane (née Caver) Booker, who taught at Arkansas Baptist College, delivered an address entitled “The Progress of Liberty” in 1918.
Black Arkansans’ pre-Juneteenth claims on the calendar were not limited to January, however. For decades they celebrated early August (sometimes the August 1 and sometimes the August 4), to commemorate the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies in 1834. It seems the practice stemmed from interracial groups of northern abolitionists who had been celebrating the event annually in cities like Philadelphia and New York since the 1830s. In 1888, Arkansans in Helena added the celebration of the end of slavery in Brazil to their August festivities. These activities reveal Black Arkansans’ broader consciousness of the cause of freedom and the plight of the African diaspora.
Thus, by the early 20th century, Arkansans celebrated the demise of slavery three times a year — January 1, June 19, and the first week of August — attending events put on by Black Arkansans for Black Arkansans from Batesville to Fort Smith, Fayetteville to Helena. Railroad companies set special excursion rates to profit from participants traveling to and from various celebrations in Arkansas and neighboring states. Communities often hosted multiple celebrations put on by different groups on the same day. In addition to church and neighborhood support, organizers secured donations from local Black and white businesses, backing from chambers of commerce and exclusive use of city parks to put on the festivities. This diverse calendar of jubilees in Arkansas is fitting, as, unlike most Texans, enslaved people here experienced emancipation at varying times.
All of this activity took place in spite of an increasingly brutal Jim Crow regime that Reconstruction’s failure had allowed to grow. Historians recognize the origin of Juneteenth itself, Granger’s 1865 orders, as symbolic not only of freedom but of the storm to come. Bending to pressure from local whites seeking to preserve the status quo, Granger followed up his celebrated General Order No. 3 with directives that limited freedpeople’s public movement and emphasized an obligation to labor for their former enslavers. In a moment that foreshadowed the failures of Reconstruction, as historian Edward Alexander put it, “orders that were supposed to bring freedom for the enslaved also set the tone for non-compliance with the spirit of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.”
Chattel slavery ended but labor exploitation would continue. The Confederacy may have failed but the values that had inspired it endured. Those who organized and attended emancipation celebrations in Texas, Arkansas, and throughout the South did so with the painful understanding that while slavery had ended, white southerners’ commitment to white supremacy had not. Exploitation, segregation, disfranchisement, and violence prevailed. On June 19, 1913, Will Norman, accused of assaulting a young white girl, was hanged, shot and burned in downtown Hot Springs in a lynching so horrific that Circuit Judge Calvin T. Cotnam publicly expressed frustration that the vigilante mob had hindered the “hard battle here for several years for the enforcement of the law.”
Early emancipation celebrations, therefore, represented courageous public assertions of humanity and, for many, served as venues to critique Jim Crow. Banners like “From the Slave Pen to the Senate,” and speech titles such as “What Next?”, “The Negro People and Conditions in the South” and “Emancipated, Yet Enslaved” revealed the concerns and hopes that motivated organizers and attendees. January celebrations held at and sponsored by Philander Smith College were often accompanied by resolutions, such as one in 1921 that called for “an efficient educational system by which every child, regardless of color or poverty may have nine months schooling a year,” the “strict enforcement of law, as opposed to lynching and mob violence” and “better equipment and convenience on railroad cars in which negroes ride.” Black Arkansans’ jubilees did not, however, advance a single agreed-upon strategy for uplift nor did all participants imbue the gatherings with the same meanings. Documents left over from early 20th-century festivities reveal a spectrum ranging from accommodationism to bold appeals, from carefully-played respectability politics to unapologetic blackness. Many saw the events as a chance to showcase the gains of their race or argue for equality while others sought a relaxing escape from the troubles of Jim Crow.
Arkansans’ celebrations of freedom reflected each generation’s concerns. Celebrants commemorated their past while acknowledging the needs of their present. In earlier years, organizers often used the events to draw attention to the plight of the large population of aging formerly enslaved members of their communities. In 1897, organizers of an August Little Rock program used the event to call for a federal pension system for formerly enslaved people — what we might today term “reparations.” Ten years later a group of Black Conway County residents designated their Emancipation Day gathering on January 1 as the launch of a petition for such a pension system. During World War I, emancipation celebrations showcased Black Arkansans’ patriotism, a group in Hope adopting a resolution at their January 1918 Emancipation Celebration “pledging the loyalty of the negroes to the government.” They used the events to raise money for the Red Cross, feed African-American soldiers (100 of whom marched to Little Rock’s Wesley Chapel from Camp Pike for the occasion in 1918). An August 1919 Hot Springs emancipation celebration also served as a “welcome home entertainment to the soldier boys.”
Programs continued to reflect the events and challenges of the times. In January 1920, at the height of the women’s suffrage movement, a teacher named Etheline Brown presented “Woman’s Duty in the Present Day Issues and Problems of Peace and Reconstruction.” Expressing concern over the exodus of Black southerners after World War I, Hot Springs pastor Rev. Joseph T. Hill’s January 1921 oration at the Philander Smith College emancipation celebration was entitled “Our Exit.” In 1937, a time of recession within the Great Depression, “negro WPA music classes” provided the music for Hope’s January 1 celebration. The Civil Rights Movement increased the stakes for festivities marking the end of slavery. In 1964, L. C. Bates (spouse of activist Daisy Gatson Bates, whose sculpture will soon represent Arkansas in our national statuary hall) planned a trip to Texarkana to read the Emancipation Proclamation for a Miller County NAACP Emancipation Celebration. Two hotels refused to accommodate him. The local furor among whites in opposition to his visit was so fierce that the president of the local NAACP branch sought police protection. The chief of police snarled that “the ‘Nigger’ Bates is coming here to stir up trouble, and you can expect anything you get.” The chief eventually relented and apologized after Bates arrived.
Emancipation celebrations in Arkansas have never been simply about remembering the past. Historically, participants have demanded a reckoning with the present and a vision for the future. The recent mainstreaming of Juneteenth is hollow without a willingness to learn and teach, not just about the history of slavery and emancipation, but of the unfreedoms that have haunted the background of every freedom celebration since slavery ended.
Kelly Houston Jones is assistant professor of history at Arkansas Tech University and author of “A Weary Land: Slavery on the Ground in Arkansas” (University of Georgia Press, 2021). She is indebted to the members of River Valley Collective Voices for inspiring and encouraging this ongoing research.