If you don’t already know the story of Juneteenth Day, this book won’t enlighten you until you get to the author’s notes at the back of the book. By starting at the end, you will learn that at the conclusion of the Civil War, many slaves did not yet know they were now free. [The author errs in her note (although not in her timeline) by stating that slaves were free as of the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. This was a wartime measure and in any event did not free all the slaves; some 800,000 slaves in the border states alone were unaffected by the measure. It was not until the return of the Confederate states to the Union (for which a renunciation of slavery was mandatory) and their acceptance of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in December of 1865, that slavery was officially abolished. In the meantime, however, Southern States remained under military government. Thus, the notification of June 19th was in the form of a military order.]
Even after slavery became illegal, slave owners in Texas did not volunteer the news to their slaves. It was only when Union Major General Gordon Granger came to Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 and made the announcement, that slaves understood they were officially free from bondage. [And often, as historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. reports, slaves took advantage of their promised freedom at some peril.]
The author observes that awareness of the significance of this date increased during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, and the date is now celebrated throughout the nation.
The book takes us through a summer day for slaves on a Texas plantation, slaves who do not realize that “soon, it would all be different.” As the news spreads, more and more people gather and:
…we ate as a free people,
laughed as a free people,
and told stories as free people
The little girl who is telling the story muses that in the morning, when they wake again, it will be a time that is “all different now.”
Illustrator E.B. Lewis does a remarkable job with muted watercolors in capturing the range of emotions that slaves must have felt upon learning they were free, from shock to disbelief to hope to ineffable joy. He also makes great use of shadow and changes in light to show the rhythms of the day.
Evaluation: While the illustrations are lovely, I would have liked to have seen some background information made available before the end notes, which in any event are geared toward adults.
Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2014