The long-held myth goes that on June 19, 1865, Union general Gordon Granger stood on the balcony of Ashton Villa in Galveston, Texas, and read the order that announced the end of slavery. Though no contemporaneous evidence exists to specifically support the claim, the story of General Granger reading from the balcony embedded itself into local folklore. On this day each year, as part of Galveston’s Juneteenth program, a reenactor from the Sons of Union Veterans reads the proclamation at Ashton Villa while an audience looks on. It is an annual moment that has taken a myth and turned it into tradition.
Galveston is a small island that sits off the coast of Southeast Texas, and in years past this event has taken place outside. But given the summer heat, the island’s humidity, and the average age of the attendees, the organizers moved the event inside. A man named Stephen Duncan, dressed as General Granger, stood at that base of the stairwell, with other men dressed as Union soldiers on either side of him. Stephen looked down at the parchment, appraising the words as if he had never seen them before. He looked back down at the crowd, who was looking back up at him. He cleared his throat, approached the microphone, and lifted the yellowed parchment to eye level.
“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.”
All slaves are free. The four words circled the room like birds who had been separated from their flock. I watched people’s faces as Stephen said these words. Some closed their eyes. Some were physically shaking. Some clasped hands with the person next to them. Some simply smiled, soaking in the words that their ancestors may have heard more than a century and a half ago.
Being in this place, standing on the same small island where the freedom of a quarter million people was proclaimed, I felt the history pulse through my body.
General Granger and his forces arrived in Galveston more than two years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and more than two months after Robert E. Lee’s famous surrender. A document that is widely misunderstood, Lincoln’s proclamation was a military strategy with multiple aims. It prevented European countries from supporting the Confederacy by framing the war in moral terms and making it explicitly about slavery, something Lincoln had previously backed away from. As a result, France and Britain, which had contemplated supporting the Confederacy, ultimately refused to do so because of each country’s antislavery positions. The proclamation allowed the Union Army to recruit Black soldiers (nearly two hundred thousand would fight for the Union Army by the war’s end), and it also threatened to disrupt the South’s social order, which depended on the work and caste position of enslaved people.
The Emancipation Proclamation, some forget, was not the sweeping, all-encompassing document that it is often remembered as. It applied only to the eleven Confederate states and did not include the border states that had remained loyal to the U.S., where it was still legal to own enslaved people. Despite the order of the proclamation, Texas was one of the Confederate states that ignored what it demanded. And even though many enslaved people escaped behind Union lines and enlisted in the Federal Army themselves, enslavers throughout the Confederacy continued to hold Black people in bondage throughout the rest of the war. General Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, in Appomattox County, Virginia, effectively signaling that the Confederacy had lost the war, but many enslavers in Texas did not share this news with their human property. It was on June 19, 1865, soon after arriving in Galveston, that Granger issued the announcement, known as General Order Number 3, that all slaves were free and word began to spread throughout Texas, from plantation to plantation, farmstead to farmstead, person to person.
A ninety-two-year-old formerly enslaved man named Felix Haywood recalled with nostalgic jubilation what that day meant to him and so many others: “The end of the war, it come jus’ like that—like you snap your fingers … Hallelujah broke out … Soldiers, all of a sudden, was everywhere—comin’ in bunches, crossin’ and walkin’ and ridin’. Everyone was a-singin’. We was all walkin’ on golden clouds … We was free. Just like that we was free.”
The air at Ashton Villa smelled of salt and heat. The street hummed with light traffic. The residence’s coral-red brick facade shimmered under the summer sun. Each of the three stories of the Victorian-style house held tall white-trimmed windows with forest-green shutters that opened on either side. A cast-iron veranda extended its shadow over the walkway leading to the front door.
Completed in 1859, the villa had served as regional headquarters for both the Union and the Confederate armies during the Civil War, moving back and forth between each of them while the battles that would determine the future of Texas, and of the country, were won and lost. The home was built, in large part, by the labor of enslaved people.
I walked inside and was grateful for the cool air. In the back of the old residence was a large, bright room. I walked in and sat down at one of the two dozen round tables laid out across the long rectangular space, each blanketed by a large white cloth with its trim overhanging the edges. The ceiling was so high it looked like it was running from the people below. A large chandelier was suspended from the middle of the room, its glass ornamentation hanging from curved silver arms, each translucent crystal glimmering under the canopy of light. A man at the front of the room was playing the piano, his fingers gliding along the keys in a series of chords, a preview of each song he planned to share during the event.
The room began to fill with a slow trickle, followed by a gush, of limbs and smiles as the start of the program drew near. As friends, family, and neighbors saw each other, they moved enthusiastically toward the tables, hugging, shaking hands, and squealing with delight at each small reunion. Some wore Juneteenth T-shirts with Pan-African colors embedded in the designs; some were dressed in dashikis and colorful beads. Many looked as if they were on their way to a picnic. The vast majority of the people in the room were Black, though a range of races and complexions were scattered throughout.
The scene was similar to the beginnings of the Black church services I knew as a child. It was a scene of fellowship, a sanctuary less reliant on the building it sits in than on the community it has built. Ashton Villa was brewing with the anticipation of revival.
This was the fortieth anniversary of Al Edwards Sr.’s Juneteenth prayer breakfast. The event has been held annually since the Texas House Bill 1016 passed in 1979, a piece of legislation championed by state legislator Al Edwards Sr., that made Juneteenth an official state holiday.
Reverend Lewis Simpson Jr., pastor of Saint John Missionary Baptist Church, came up to the podium and led the group in prayer. Leaning on his cane, nodding his head as if it were being lifted and released by an invisible string above him, he outlined the parallels between God’s freeing of the Israelites and the freedom achieved by enslaved Black people in America, a parallel that had long been made by Black ministers both during and after slavery.
“You led us out of captivity, and for that, Father, all of us”—he lifted his head—“just say thank you.”
I looked around to see every person’s head bowed in prayer, as devotional ad-libs cascaded across the room.
After Reverend Simpson stepped down, the pianist, who had been playing lightly in the background of the prayer, seamlessly transitioned into the beginning of the melody for “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black National Anthem.
Originally written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson to celebrate the birthday of the late president Abraham Lincoln, the poem evolved into a song, and the song evolved into something much larger than a tribute to any singular figure. Scholar Imani Perry, in her book about the origins of the song, May We Forever Stand, writes that it “was a lament and encomium to the story and struggle of black people” that ultimately became “a definitive part of ritual practices in schools and churches and civic gatherings.”
Without anyone having to ask, everyone in the room stood up. Some held pieces of paper with the song’s lyrics, but the majority stood simply with their eyes shut and their hands clasped. They did not need to read the words. Their bodies swayed and their lips moved to a hymn that had long been imprinted in their memories.
I half sang and half looked around the room, observing the way people’s mouths moved over the words, how the vowels at the center of each lyric stretched out and hung like the laundry on a warm day. Around me was a tapestry of sunlight and song, pain and catharsis moving through the air. As I listened to people sing, I imagined the words floating above us, my eyes tracing the curve of each invisible piece of language, while the chords from the piano echoed throughout the room. I felt almost as if I should reach up and grab the words and place them in my pocket, in an effort to carry this moment with me once it came to an end.
When we reached the second verse, I felt something different come over the crowd, and felt something different come over me:
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
The crowd had turned into a congregation. My own lips, after an initial wariness, curled around each slice of song and found a home there. I had sung the Black National Anthem countless times—in churches, in schools, at my own dinner table—but hearing the harmony of those words reverberate around me in this place, on this day, moved me in a way I had not experienced before.
When the crowd sang “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, / We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,” I thought of how 154 years ago such a lyric would not have been an abstraction, the blood would not have been metaphoric. I felt as if there was something that had been clenched inside me I was now able to release. I exhaled, able to breathe in a new way.
Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the poetry collection Counting Descent. The book won the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He has received fellowships from New America, the Emerson Collective, the Art For Justice Fund, Cave Canem, and the National Science Foundation. His writing has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. Born and raised in New Orleans, he received his B.A. in English from Davidson College and his Ph.D. in Education from Harvard University.
From the book How the Word Is Passed, by Clint Smith. Copyright © 2021 by Clint Smith. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.