Before Juneteenth

17 Jun 2024
Illustration by Chantel Walkes

A firsthand account of freedom’s earliest celebrations

In a quiet corner of a library at Mississippi State University, you’ll find a slim red volume that tells the story of what may be America’s first Juneteenth. It took place in New Orleans in the summer of 1864 to celebrate the day of liberation for the enslaved people living in the 13 Louisiana parishes exempted from President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued the previous January. It was actually a series of celebrations—or jubilees, as these were known—over two extraordinary months, with the largest occurring on June 11, a month after the Free State Convention abolished slavery across Louisiana.

Juneteenth - Figure 1
Photo The Atlantic

Newly freed New Orleanians gathered in mass public meetings—celebrations, parades, church services, and displays of Black arts and sciences—of the kind that had been banned under slavery. Each gathering brought together the city’s Black community—the recently emancipated and those already free—to celebrate a future of citizenship, sacrifice, learning, and social advancement. In doing so, they showed themselves and the wider world that they were a united community, ready to protect their families, demand economic justice, and claim their rightful place as citizens.

Juneteenth—sometimes called America’s second Independence Day—takes its name from June 19, 1865, when the U.S. Army in Galveston, Texas, posted a proclamation declaring the enslaved free. In 1866, Black Galvestonians gathered to commemorate the date of their freedom, beginning an annual observance in Texas that spread across the nation and became a federal holiday in 2021. But the slender volume in the Mississippi museum, and the summer-long celebrations in New Orleans that it records, invites us to realize that Juneteenth was a national holiday from the start.

In January 1863, Black New Yorkers celebrated the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation with a jubilee at Cooper Union, just as African Americans did in Chicago and other cities across the North that year. But in New Orleans, they held what may be the first recorded mass celebration—the first Juneteenth—organized by formerly enslaved people rejoicing at the end of their own enslavement. Other such celebrations followed. In April 1865, for example, thousands of Black South Carolinians paraded through Charleston, celebrating the evacuation of Confederate forces and their own emancipation. And in June 1866, of course, Galvestonians began the commemorations that became a national holiday.

Accounts from New Orleans in the summer of 1864, in a city that was once the country’s largest slave market, confirm that the moment of liberation was America’s second Independence Day—and as in 1776, it marked the beginning of a fight, not the end. New Orleans’s celebrations were the first battle cry in African Americans’ struggle to achieve something more than freedom.

At the end of the summer, 10 formerly enslaved men decided to publish a history of the summer’s events, the story found in the thin volume. Their pamphlet was a direct rebuke of state laws banning enslaved people from learning to read or write, much less voicing their demands in print. This specific volume—which demonstrated the authors’ educational accomplishments and their skills as printers and editors—was designed to inspire a man they considered an ally, though sometimes a reluctant one. We don’t know how many copies of Emancipation Celebration they printed in 1864; few exist today. But this one, expensively bound in red leather with silver edging, likely survived because, as the brass plate on its cover reveals, it was a gift to His Excellency A. Lincoln from the Free Colored People, New Orleans.

Left: Copy of the Emancipation Proclamation Celebration in New Orleans, as presented to President Abraham Lincoln. Right: A letter written to President Lincoln from Thomas Jefferson Durant explaining the gift was inserted within this copy. (Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana / Mississippi State University)

The largest of the events it recorded started on June 11 in Congo Square—a Black space used for generations for celebrations, commemorations, and markets—and then expanded with a parade through the French Quarter. It drew soldiers from the Louisiana Native Guard and U.S. Colored Regiments, who marched alongside children from multiple African American schools, followed by members of Black trade and charitable organizations. The speakers’ platform featured educators from the city’s Black schools and African American veterans of the War of 1812. They were seated alongside two white leaders, General Nathaniel P. Banks and Louisiana Governor Michael Hahn, who both arrived late. This was not simply a celebration of emancipation. The planners had organized demonstrations of the role that African Americans had played in destroying slavery and their fitness for the responsibilities of citizenship that should follow.

Juneteenth - Figure 2
Photo The Atlantic

The two featured speakers that day were both leaders within the Black community. Stephen Walter Rogers had been enslaved as a child but freed in his teens. By 1864, he was one of the best-known Black religious leaders in the city. Francois Boisdoré was born free to formerly enslaved parents and grew up as a member of New Orleans’s elite Creole community. By the time of the city’s jubilees, Boisdoré was working as an educator and a bookkeeper. He had battled Hahn in the press over Black suffrage, and suspected that Banks’s support for Black education was more about ensuring a supply of productive laborers than building a professional class.

Both Rogers and Boisdoré opened with thanks and praise for Lincoln, Banks, and Hahn, but reminded their audience that more must be done. Rogers insisted that African Americans wanted only four key things: “Freedom, Suffrage, Work, and Wages.—Give him those four wants and it makes him a citizen in every sense of the word.” With that freedom, Rogers reminded his audience, African Americans did not seek to hold office, but to “say by our sacred votes whom we shall have to rule over us.” If these four wants were granted, “we can say that slavery is done forever; but not until then.”

Boisdoré addressed the audience in French. He had two messages, one for the Black community and another for the civil and military commanders onstage. Addressing “my emancipated brothers,” he argued that the path to real freedom ran through work and education. Some of his arguments reflected 19th-century concepts of uplift, that Black men had to prove that they were industrious and intelligent to be worthy of citizenship. However, Boisdoré was not solely interested in convincing white Americans that Black Americans were capable of self-government. He was also concerned with the future of Black families and Black communities. Before emancipation, slave owners stole enslaved people’s labor, overrode their free will, and ripped families apart by selling children away from their parents. Now that those horrors were over, Boisdoré argued, freed people finally would want to work, because they could use their labor to safeguard their families and future. Work, he declared, would provide the laborer “with means of comfort and ease for himself and his family” and enable Black families “to bring up their children and give them a good education.”

But then Boisdoré went further. Where Rogers had pushed only for male suffrage, Boisdoré insisted that those who once oppressed Black New Orleanians must “acknowledge and confirm to all and every one the right of citizenship—their right to be electors, and consequently their right to be also themselves elected.”

African American band at the Emancipation Day Juneteenth Celebration in Austin, Texas, June 19, 1900. (Austin History Center)

Jubilees brought Black New Orleanians together over and over that summer to hear and express messages about the importance of education, citizenship, and economic justice. In the process, participants began to topple the practices that had held up the institution of slavery. Once barred from speaking in public, Black leaders turned to the state’s governor and demanded more. Previously banned from large gatherings, Black New Orleanians pushed beyond Congo Square and paraded through the city’s streets. Now the owners of their labor, Black artisans displayed their wares, and congregations listened to messages about Black business.

Juneteenth - Figure 3
Photo The Atlantic

During the summer’s final gathering, New Orleanians came together to demonstrate the depth and breadth of their abilities. On August 1, a parade of people carried examples of their “trades and domestic arts” from a Black church to the same room above city hall where the state emancipation ordinance had passed in May. There, members of the public could see displays of and prizes for Black painting, sculpture, and photography; literature; needlework and dressmaking; dentistry and midwifery; and food and manufactured goods of all sorts. The assemblage of the “specimens of industry of the colored people” sent a message that Rogers made explicit in a speech at the opening of the exhibition. Enslaved labor had built the nation’s economic might—and now Black artisans were ready to use their skills to promote Black people’s welfare. Rogers proposed another fair, with delegations from every state, to raise $50,000 to support poor Black people at home and abroad.

The New Orleans organizers saw themselves within a longer history of Black-freedom movements. The event on August 1, for example, commemorated Emancipation Day, a holiday recognizing the abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean that was celebrated throughout the African diaspora in the mid-19th century. For enslaved people across the Civil War South, legal freedom followed a halting and precarious path. Juneteenths arrived over and over again, but those emancipation celebrations were only the beginning. As the speakers that summer in New Orleans knew, Black liberation was an unfinished process.

But the question remains: Why give this unprecedented collection of speeches and celebrations to Lincoln? What did Black New Orleans leaders seek from the president? They praised him at times, but they also critiqued his long support of colonization along with the unequal pay that Black soldiers still received that summer, and Lincoln had not yet spoken publicly about his new support for limited Black male suffrage.

A tiny booklet in a nearby museum case provides a possible answer, or at least a clue. Not far from Emancipation Celebration at the Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana at Mississippi State University sits a rare pocket-size copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. The industrialist and abolitionist John Moore Forbes had 1 million copies printed and shipped to Union armies so soldiers could distribute them to enslaved people. These little copies brought to soldiers and enslaved alike the text of the president’s proclamation, which formally confiscated people enslaved in Confederate territory as a wartime measure and allowed freedmen to join the Union Army, but did not end slavery or extend citizenship. The Proclamation was enforced only in territory controlled by federal forces, and did not apply to people already under federal jurisdiction when it was issued, including New Orleanians. The Emancipation Proclamation alone did not end slavery.

The copy of Emancipation Celebration addressed to Lincoln contains a final page that speaks to these limitations. The printer inserted a copy of an article from a local Unionist newspaper, The New Orleans Era, pointing out the differences between emancipation in Louisiana and elsewhere. The article proclaimed that emancipation in New Orleans was the most remarkable of all emancipation acts because it brought a legal end to the institution of slavery, clearly and elegantly stating that “slavery and involuntary servitude … are hereby forever abolished and prohibited throughout the state … The legislature shall make no law recognizing the right of property in man.” Whoever printed and bound the copy intended for Lincoln wanted the president to know that in Louisiana, slavery was no more.

Juneteenth - Figure 4
Photo The Atlantic

On December 6, 1864, a “committee of presentation” composed of Black New Orleans religious and civic leaders, including Rogers and Boisdoré, invited Thomas J. Durant, a local white lawyer and abolitionist, to join them at St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church on Roman Street. They presented him with Emancipation Celebration and asked that he send it to the president. In a letter accompanying the gift, Durant assured the president that these men represented “a most worthy, loyal and patriotic portion of our population” who had “testified to their devotion to the Government by sacrifice of the highest character.” They gave this gift to Lincoln with “the most heartfelt devotion and gratitude to the country.”

The committee members sent the volume to Lincoln through a white intermediary, knowing that doing so increased the chances that Lincoln would see it himself. But did Lincoln read the volume? We know that the White House received it and that Black New Orleanians received Lincoln’s letter of thanks, but one of his secretaries may have accepted the gift and written that acknowledgment. It’s hard to know if Emancipation Celebration helped persuade the president to do more to advance Black citizenship.

Emancipation Day in Richmond, Virginia, June 19, 1905. (Library of Congress)

Regardless, Lincoln’s views on Black citizenship were already evolving. He arrived in Washington as a longtime opponent of human enslavement, but he had also spoken openly against African American suffrage and civil rights. By 1864, however, Lincoln was insisting to his Cabinet and his party that they must find a way to permanently destroy slavery. Just days before the June 11 celebrations in New Orleans, Republicans unveiled their platform for the 1864 presidential campaign, which included a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery.

Lincoln had also begun to speak privately with members of his Cabinet and other politicians about the possibilities of limited Black male suffrage. By the following spring, just days before his assassination, Lincoln was so confident in these views that he shared them publicly. On April 11, 1865, addressing a crowd outside the White House, Lincoln argued that “very intelligent” African Americans and “those who serve our cause as soldiers” had earned the right of suffrage. It was a radical step for the moderate and masterful politician. Black military service and Black civic leaders, including some from New Orleans who had debated and discussed emancipation and civil rights with Lincoln during their visits to the White House, had changed his thinking on the justice of Black citizenship.

The red-bound volume found a fitting home in Mississippi, a state that embodies the possibilities and failures of the moment the pamphlet commemorates. Half of the state’s population was enslaved in 1860; by the 1870s, Mississippi had numerous Black sheriffs, justices of the peace, attorneys, and businessmen, and the first two African American U.S. senators. But the state’s ugly postwar history also demonstrates the angry determination to limit emancipation’s hopeful legacy through race riots, legal trickery, and murder.

The thousands of Black New Orleanians who celebrated slavery’s end together, the Black leaders who stood onstage and demanded more from white politicians, and the 10 Black men who oversaw the pamphlet’s printing wanted the president and the nation to know that their state had done something extraordinary—it had ended slavery. They also wanted people to know that the work was far from over. It’s a lesson that extends from the very first Juneteenth to the present day. Ending slavery did not end injustice; it was just one more step in the journey toward freedom and equality.

Susannah J. Ural, a historian of war and society, is a professor of Abraham Lincoln and Civil War Studies at Mississippi State University.

Ann Marsh Daly is a historian of the early United States at Mississippi State University.

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