156 Years Later, Juneteenth’s ‘First Scholarly Book’ Explores Underresearched History

The new book dives deep into the history behind the celebration some Americans still know little about.

By Laura RiceJune 15, 2021 12:35 pm, , ,

Juneteenth commemorates the day when the news of the end of slavery reached Galveston on June 19, 1865. Though a number of different dates surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation and the ratification of the 13th Amendment could be chosen as days to celebrate the end of slavery, Edward T. Cotham, Jr. says people immediately rallied around Juneteenth.

“And what’s really neat about Juneteenth is that the celebration of that event by the people who had actually been enslaved, had actually been emancipated, started almost immediately with incredible enthusiasm, and it’s carried forward ever since,” Cotham said.

Cotham is the author of “Juneteenth: The Story Behind The Celebration.” The Texas A&M University Press Consortium says it’s “the first scholarly book to delve into the history behind Juneteenth.”

a photo of a hard cover copy of the Juneteenth book

Cotham says as he pursued his research, he actually found the full text of the Juneteenth order – General Orders No. 3 – to be disappointing.

“Most newspapers in the old days would just report the first sentence of it, which said ‘all slaves are free,’” Cotham said. “But there’s actually three more sentences of importance. The last two are almost kind of embarrassing because they say that even though you’re free, they recommend to the freed people that they go home, continue basically staying where they’ve been enslaved and continue working for their former masters as employees.”

But, he says, yet another phrase in the order stands out for a different reason.

“It basically defined freedom,” Cotham said. “It said ‘freedom means an absolute equality of personal and property rights.’ And that very broad general statement, which went well beyond the Emancipation Proclamation, has kind of resonated through history.”

Cotham says he used to lead tours in Galveston which included the building where the Juneteenth order was issued and was surprised by the number of people – even many Texans – who were not familiar with the celebration. He is pleased that seems to be changing and hopes that his book can add more to what we all know about Juneteenth.

“A broad consensus of the last really large group of enslaved people chose this. They didn’t choose to pick a date that was something out of Washington. They didn’t choose to pick a date that was something that didn’t really affect people. They chose the Juneteenth Order because it was the freedom paper,” Cotham said.

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