Juneteenth and Sodus--A Local Connection

A Special Date for Sodus—June 19th

You may recall that in 2013 the Sodus Bay Historical Society and the Neighborhood Association of Sodus Point hosted several events to commemorate a special date:  June 19.  It was the bicentennial of the Battle of Sodus Point—when the British burned the village during the War of 1812.

I would like to tell you another reason why June 19 is a special date for our area (and is connected with a state holiday in Texas), but you will have to bear with me; I’m taking a page from Paul Harvey’s book:  the “rest of the story” will be revealed at the end.

We start with the Civil War.  The reasons for this bloody conflict were varied, but the distilled version tells us it was about slavery.  Certainly, the abolition of this heinous practice was central to the war.  Slaves were often cruelly treated and horribly abused.  Many lived in fear for their lives.  They were viewed as less than human, and most were intentionally kept illiterate. 

The Emancipation Proclamation

When President Abraham Lincoln presented a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet on September 22, 1862, it stated (among other things) that as of January 1, 1863:

all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward and forever free, and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

As of January 1, 1863, we would assume, then, that the institution of slavery ceased to exist in our United States, right?  Not quite.  As previously mentioned, most slaves were kept illiterate.  Without the ability to read or write, they would have to learn of their freedom verbally from others.  Most owners were not going to tell their slaves of this newly declared freedom.  This was the case in Texas, where the Emancipation Proclamation had little effect, mostly due to the minimal number of Union troops available to enforce the order.  (Honest!  This does relate to our local history!)

With the surrender of General Lee in April 1865, the Union forces were finally sufficient in number to influence and overcome resistance in Texas.  One Union officer, Major General Gordon Granger, had seen many successes during the Civil War, most notably at the Battle of Chickamauga; after the war, Granger remained in the Army and was given the command of the Department of Texas.  

 Major General Gordon Granger

One of his first items of business was to abolish the practice of slavery in Texas—two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect elsewhere in the United States.  General Order 3, which Granger issued in Galveston on June 19, 1865, began with the following statement:

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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.

In one fell swoop, 250,000 slaves gained their freedom.  As word of Granger’s proclamation spread, reactions to the news varied from shock to jubilation.  Some slaves remained in their positions, now as employees; others immediately left, many traveling to the North.  The term Juneteenth (a combination of June and nineteenth) was used by the freed slaves to describe this memorable date.

Originally, June 19th celebrations were used as political rallies to teach freed African Americans about their voting rights; soon, however, the celebration of Juneteenth was marked with festivities, such as picnics, parades, and pageants.  Initially, there was little interest in commemorating this event outside the African American community.  Over the years, interest in “Juneteenth” waxed and waned, until, through the efforts of Texas state legislator Al Edwards, Juneteenth became an official Texas state holiday on January 1, 1980.  Today, over half of the states in our country have legislation declaring Juneteenth either an official holiday or a “special day of recognition.”

So, what is our local connection to these events and to celebrations of Juneteenth across the United States?  Major General Gordon Granger, of course.  He was born on November 6, 1821, in the hamlet of Joy, Town of Sodus, Wayne County, New York. 

“And now you know the rest of the story!”

—Joe O’Toole