On Juneteenth, let's look back at Emancipation Day celebrations in Columbia's past.
On March 16, 1956 a County chain gang team unearthed a cache of coins and silver along North Trenholm Road. The coins bore dates ranging from 1831 to 1854. The silver, engraved with initials D.E.V. had the maker’s mark of N. Hayden, a pre-Civil War Charleston silversmith and dealer. No doubt, these items had been buried in haste by someone who intended to return and claim them. But there they lay, unclaimed, for almost 100 years.
I try to imagine the chaos, fear in some and excitement in others, as Union troops approached Columbia. As the world that upheld slavery in the Confederate States crumbled, furtive efforts to save these "treasures" would come to nothing. And newly freed men and women could finally celebrate the Emancipation granted years before.
Even though the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, declared an end to slavery in the states in rebellion, which included South Carolina, slavery did not effectively end in Columbia until February 17, 1865, when Union troops entered the city. Across the country, freedom arrived to enslaved African Americans region by region - as the Confederacy fell like a set of dominoes. Though it would take many more years to fully protect the freedom that had been won.
In Galveston, Texas, emancipation did not effectively occur until June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger arrived and read out General Order Number 3, informing the enslaved that they had been emancipated. The anniversary of this freedom, known as Juneteenth, has been celebrated in Texas by freed men and women and their descendants for generations. Juneteenth has now grown to represent Emancipation Day for many that wish to celebrate the end of slavery, and this year, 2021, many more are choosing to commemorate the end of slavery on June 19.
In Columbia, Emancipation Day was celebrated for many years on January 1 at the state fairgrounds north of Elmwood Avenue. On January 1, 1894, The State newspaper announced that Emancipation Day events at the fairgrounds would include prayer, music, a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, speakers, and the collection of funds for the Lincoln Memorial Association. Entertainment would be provided by the Ladson Presbyterian Church Choir, Enterprise Brass Band, and the Lone Star Drum Corps, among others. A parade of local African-American groups and associations was to proceed through downtown Columbia. Horse races would be held that afternoon, a draw for both white and Black spectators. The day’s events were to culminate with a nighttime Emancipation Celebration entertainment.
But as older generations passed and new struggles emerged in the fight for equal civil rights, public recognition of Emancipation Day in Columbia faded into the past. Dr. A. J. Collins, president of the Palmetto State Fair Association, organized one of the last Emancipation Day celebrations in 1943, when over 500 people gathered at the Township Auditorium for orations and a Liberty War Bond drive.
In the mid-1990s, a new desire to understand the significant events of our nation’s history, from all angles, brought the larger spotlight back to the ending of slavery in America. A program from a Juneteenth Celebration held June 17, 1995 at the Mann-Simons Cottage in Columbia can be found in our digital collections. That day’s events included storytelling, music, speakers, and food and art vendors. Juneteenth was chosen to represent a national commemoration of the end of slavery and to celebrate African American culture and heritage. A need for this unified recognition persists today.
The emancipation of slaves in the United States is perhaps one of the most significant events of this nation’s history. Let us honor the struggles of those who endured slavery, the new hope they felt as it came to an end, and the progress we have since made by commemorating Juneteenth every year, together.