Juneteenth is a celebration held during the month of June in Arkansas and throughout the nation to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. The celebration, which originated in Texas in 1865, marks the date when the news of the emancipation of the enslaved African Americans reached the state. Since 2005, the third Saturday in June has been officially considered “Juneteenth Independence Day” in Arkansas.
Although President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the actual emancipation of those enslaved came on different dates in different regions. In Galveston, Texas, for instance, it was on June 19, 1865, that a regiment of Union soldiers informed the residents that all formerly enslaved persons were free. June 19th became a day of celebration in Texas marked by numerous activities such as thanksgiving services, concerts, pageants, and barbecues. It was eventually called Juneteenth. In 1980, the date was declared “Emancipation Day in Texas,” a legal state holiday.
Over the years, the celebration of Juneteenth spread from Texas to other states, including Arkansas. In recent years, the City of Pine Bluff has celebrated Juneteenth with special events featuring free food, vendors, performances, music, activities for kids, block parties, and educational presentations.
For residents of Pine Bluff, the history of freedom for African Americans dates back even earlier than Juneteenth. In October 1863, during the Battle of Pine Bluff, 300 African Americans who were not Union soldiers joined 600 union soldiers facing 2,300 Confederate army troops. Though the Union was outnumbered and outgunned, the efforts of the black men were key to securing an eventual victory for the North and the end of slavery in the area. These black men combined their efforts as part of a bucket brigade carrying water to douse fire set to a bulwark of cotton bales protecting Union soldiers at the courthouse as well as serving as riflemen firing at Confederates.
After the battle, a Union captain named James Talbot praised the black men, whose eyes had never seen a battle, for their valor and honor in war.
One escaped slave, Boston Blackwell, ran for two days and nights from the Blackwell plantation to safety at the Union Camp in Pine Bluff. In later interviews with the Work Projects Administration, Blackwell said, “When we gets to the Yankee camp all our troubles was over. We gets all the contraband we could eat. Was they more run-aways there? Oh, Lordy, yessum. Hundreds, I reckon. Yessum, the Yankees feeds all them refugees on contraband. They made me a driver of a team in the quatamasters department. I was always keerful to do everything they telled me. They telled me I was free when I gets to the Yankee camp, but I couldn’t go outside much. Yessum, iffen you could get to the Yankee’s camp you was free right now.”
Blackwell went on to talk about the Battle of Pine Bluff, saying, “I was a soldier that day. No’um, I didn’t shoot no gun nor cannon. I carried water from the river for to put out the fire in the cotton bales what made the breas’works. Every time the ’Federates shoot, the cotton, it come on fire.”
Though social distancing may put a damper on Pine Bluff’s usual Juneteenth celebrations, why not take a moment to say a silent prayer of thanks for Boston Blackwell and everyone who participated in the Battle of Pine Bluff?