Next Monday, June 19, 2017, African Americans throughout the US will be celebrating Juneteenth. Juneteenth 2017 commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger traveled to Galveston, Texas, to reiterate that slavery in the United States had been abolished officially over two years earlier on September 22, 1862, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.
He declared, “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.”
The Texas slaves were the last to receive the news. Celebrations followed in Texas and other places, and the day became the portmanteau word Juneteenth (“June” plus “nineteenth”).
News of the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t the only thing to transpire slowly over the past 150 years. African Americans with slave ancestry have been laboriously trying to gather their family trees and reconnect with their ancestors ever since. Thankfully, technology and easier access to historical records are giving them their own reasons to celebrate over breakthrough discoveries in their personal family history research.
Lonnie Bunch’s paternal grandparents died just before he turned five years old. His only memory was of his grandmother taking out cookie tins to make crescents and stars. As a little kid, he thought these tins were wonderful.
As an adult, Bunch became the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which co-sponsored the Freedmen’s Bureau Project. He decided to test the records to see if he could find any ancestors. He discovered a labor contract for the family’s earliest known relative, Candis Bunch. The front of the contract listed her wages for cleaning house and picking cotton. On the other side, the contract listed her purchase of the cotton seed and the rental of a horse. The last notation was a 22-cent purchase—to buy cookie tins.
Finding the document about his great-great grandmother and her cookie tins brought Bunch to tears. Bunch said, “I realize that what [the records] allow thousands of people like me to do is to find themselves—to be connected with a past that they had lost.” For Bunch, this experience of discovering his ancestor became very personal in ways he never expected.
Humans have an innate need to know their ancestors’ stories that form the backdrop of their own lives. For many African Americans, finding ancestral lines through slavery comes with unique—but not insurmountable—obstacles. Traditional records before 1870 for enslaved African Americans are difficult to find, but alternatives are becoming more accessible. And as they do become accessible, more and more African Americans are making long-awaited breakthroughs in their family history research.
Read and share the entire Juneteenth 2017 feature article in the FamilySearch Newsroom.
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