Feature

Happy Juneteenth! A Brief Legal Background

June 18, 2020

Emancipation Day (commonly referred to as Juneteenth) is generally celebrated as the end of slavery in Texas and the rest of the United States. Juneteenth can also be considered as the legal end of slavery, according to several Texas Supreme Court cases.

Juneteenth marks June 19th, 1865, the day that Union General Granger arrived in Galveston and read general orders to the people of Texas proclaiming that all slaves had been freed. General Order Number 3 reads as follows:

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 freed are advised to remain 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.

Juneteenth was celebrated widely the following year in Texas, and celebrations spread to neighboring states throughout the years.

Texas Supreme Court Cases

Questions remained over whether or not Juneteenth constituted the legal end of slavery or whether slavery had been ended legally by the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863 or by the ratification of the 13th Amendment [PDF] in 1865. These disputes eventually made their way through the court system and up to the Texas Supreme Court.

The library has uploaded the opinions of a few notable cases that centered on these disputes from our archive, which you can view below. Please note that these cases can be difficult to read as they center on ugly disputes over the legality of owning human beings as property. For more information and context on each case, we recommend Randolph B. Campbell's 1984 article The End of Slavery: A Research Note from Vol. 88, No. 1 (Jul., 1984) of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly.

  • Williams v. Arnis – 30 Tex. 37 [PDF]. The first case to reach the Texas Supreme Court, Williams v. Arnis was heard in 1865. The court declined to make a definitive rule on the date slavery had ended in Texas.
  • Emancipation Proclamation Cases – 31 Tex. 504 [PDF]. Two cases from 1868, Hall v. Keese and Doughtery v. Cartwright, are known as the “Emancipation Proclamation cases”. The justices in these cases stated that the Emancipation Proclamation was a “war measure” which did not actually free the slaves at that time. Justice Lindsay's concurring opinion in Hall v. Keese labeled Juneteenth as the legal end to slavery in Texas.
  • Garrett v. Brooks – 41 Tex. 479 [PDF]. Argued in 1874, this case upheld the opinion reached in the Emancipation Proclamation cases that slavery in Texas was legally ended on June 19th, 1865.

Emancipation Day: A Texas Holiday

Juneteenth continued to be celebrated each year in Texas and elsewhere in the United States but did not become a state holiday until 1979, when a Democratic legislator from Houston named Al Edwards wrote a bill that recommended Emancipation Day become an official Texas holiday. The bill was signed into law by Governor William P. Clements, Jr., and the first official celebration followed the next year in 1980. Today, Juneteenth is an official state holiday in 48 out of 50 states, although it is not yet a federal holiday.

The bill that declared Emancipation Day a state holiday in Texas is House Bill 1016, Acts 1979, 66th R.S., ch. 481. You can view the enrolled (final) version of H.B. 1016 [PDF] on the Legislative Reference Library's website. The law is codified at section 662.003(b)(4) of the Government Code.

We also recommend the Texas State Library and Archive's article on Juneteenth as well as the Texas State Historical Association's Handbook of Texas's entry on Juneteenth for more information on the history and culture of Juneteenth. Happy celebrating!