Juneteenth originated in Galveston, Texas in 1865, observing June 19th as African American emancipation day. Two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and the enslaved were free.
Many great men and women were born into slavery, but overcame obstacles and became politicians, thus becoming spokespeople for the many who suffered and continued to suffer even after the Emancipation Proclamation. One such person is Booker T. Washington, born April 5, 1856 in Hale's Ford, Virginia. His mother was a slave and his father was a white plantation owner. Being born to a slave, he was also a slave, according to laws at that time. In 1865, they were granted their freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation. He and his mother and siblings moved to Malden, WV to reunite with his stepfather. At the age of nine, he worked various jobs with his mother and even was briefly hired to work on a steamboat. He became a houseboy for Viola Ruffner, the wife of General Lewis Ruffner. She encouraged him to attend school and study. Soon he was ready for higher learning and enrolled at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, paying his way by working. From 1878 to 1879, he went to Wayland Seminary in Washington, DC and returned to Hampton to teach. He was recommended by Hampton officials for a principals position at a similar school that was being opened in Alabama.
He became the first principal of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in 1881, the school that is now Tuskegee University. Washington became friends with some very influential and prominent politicians and businessmen, such as Andrew Carnegie and William Howard Taft, through which several small schools were founded to establish better educational facilities for African Americans. One of his greatest friendships was with Henry H. Rogers, who became a principal in Standard Oil. Rogers, a millionaire, secretly funded 65 small country schools for African Americans and donated money to Tuskegee and Hampton Universities. Washington had become a great public speaker and was renowned as a brilliant educator. His famous Atlanta Address of 1895, urging business owners to hire African Americans rather than immigrants that were arriving daily and African Americans to join the workforce, changed hiring practices and attitudes and became one of the most important speeches in American History. Although only elected to university positions, Washington was quite influential in politics and made quite a mark on history.
Blanche K. Bruce was born in slavery March 1, 1841 in Virginia. During his moves from Virginia to Mississippi and then Missouri, he was tutored by his master's son. He escaped from slavery at the beginning of the Civil War and tried to enlist with the Union Army. He was refused entry and in 1864, he moved to Hannibal, Missouri and opened the first school for blacks. Five years later, he moved to Mississippi and became involved in politics. Among his appointments were registrar of voters in Tallahatchee County, tax assessor in Bolivar County, then was elected sheriff and tax collector of the same county. On a trip to Jackson, Mississippi in 1870, Bruce made some very important connections with powerful white Republicans and received several appointments that ultimately led to him being recognized as the most recognized black political leader in Mississippi. In 1874, he was elected to the United States Senate by the Mississippi legislature. He convinced the government to issue land grants in the west to black emigrants and called for desegregation of US Army units. On February 14, 1879 he became the first black senator to preside over a Senate session. He was an advocate for the humane treatment of Indians and became a lecturer and author of magazine articles. He died in Washington on March 17, 1898.
John Roy Lynch was born September 10, 1847 on a plantation near Vidalia, Louisiana. His father was Patrick Lynch, manager of the plantation and his mother was Catherine White, a slave. Patrick Lynch, who was an Irish immigrant, purchased his wife and two children from the owner of the plantation, but due to a law in Louisiana, they had to leave the state in order for Lynch to free them. Lynch transferred ownership of his wife and children to a friend, as he was sick and dying, with the promise that they would be treated as free individuals. However, the friend reneged on his promise and sold the family to a planter in Natchez, Mississippi.
Union forces freed John Roy, then 16, in 1863. He worked several jobs and in 1866, he managed a photography shop in Natchez and learned to read from newspapers and books and was quite interested in parliamentary law. In 1868, he gave a number of speeches supporting Mississippi legislation that made all slave marriages legal. In 1869, he was sent by the Natchez Republican club to discuss political appointments with the Mississippi military governor. Impressed with his presentation, he was appointed to justice of the peace and later that year, he was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives. He worked closely with Blanche K. Bruce, working mainly on black civil rights. Given his birth as a slave and lack of formal education, he truly made quite an impact for African Americans.
As the many people who made the pilgrimage back to Galveston, Texas every year to remember the actions of ancestors who made a difference, we should celebrate June 19th no matter what your heritage as all of our ancestors made sacrifices and stood up for what they believed in so that we have achieved the positions we have today. Go on a family outing, a picnic, a celebration, just as you would celebrate the Fourth of July, for that is what it is all about; celebrating the freedom you have because of the dedication and beliefs of those who walked that road before us and for us.