Eric Michael Washington, PhD, is associate professor of history and director of African and African diaspora studies at Calvin University, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The first celebration of Juneteenth began at the same courthouse in Galveston, on the same date where, one year before, enslaved people in Texas learned that the war was over and they were now free. On these same steps, Union Major General Gordon Granger had read, “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. …” On this day, June 19, 1866, the Emancipation Proclamation was read out loud, and then those gathered progressed to Methodist Episcopal South (now Reedy Chapel AME Church) for a public prayer meeting.
While history did not record the prayers from this gathering, that the event itself happened was noteworthy. Public prayer meetings by African Americans were rare during slavery. Though independent African American churches in the South existed during the antebellum period, the majority of enslaved African Americans worshipped alongside the people who enslaved them. Slave owners on plantations and farms presided over church services that served their own oppressive purposes. While some enslaved people preached, their sermons sounded as degrading as those of white ministers: Obey your master, don’t steal food, and so on. Enslaved African Americans were keenly aware that this type of preaching was a sham, a mechanism to attempt to keep them docile and complacent in their positions as enslaved persons.
Enslaved African Americans, on the other hand, practiced their faith in organized secret meetings. At these “invisible institutions,” as renowned African American religious historian Albert J. Raboteau later called them, enslaved communities could sing their own songs, preach their own sermons, and pray their own prayers. These meetings were continual acts of resistance against slaveholders’ power and slaveholders’ belief that they had to use Christianity to make slaves obedient. These meetings also signified the lengths that enslaved people went to care for their own souls and the souls of their fellow yoked persons.
Anderson Edwards, a formerly enslaved preacher in Texas, had this to say about what slave masters expected from slave preachers, and how he ministered while away from the master’s watchful eye:
I been preachin’ the Gospel and farmin’ since slavery time. … When I starts preachin’ I couldn’t read or write and had to preach what massa told me and he say tell them n— iffen they obeys the massa they goes to Heaven, but I knowed there’s something better for them, but daren’t tell them ’cept on the sly. That I done lots. I tell ’em iffen they keeps prayin’ the Lord will set ’em free.
Another formerly enslaved man, Wash Wilson, remembered that when enslaved persons would begin to sing “Steal Away to Jesus,” it meant there would be a secret prayer meeting that night, as Raboteau recounts in Slave Religion. He recollected that “De masters … didn’t like dem ’ligious meetin’s, so us natcherly slips off at night, down in de bottoms or somewhere. Sometimes us sing and pray all night.”
These secret prayer meetings put enslaved people in danger. Slaveholders feared the prayers of the enslaved. Owners and overseers believed that enslaved people prayed against them, threatening enslaved African Americans with punishment if they were found attending and holding these prayer meetings. Still, enslaved people used prayer as a weapon to fight for their freedom, believing that God, in his grace, mercy, and kind providence, would deliver them from bondage.
Those prayers continued after the joy of the inaugural Juneteenth gave way to the horror of Jim Crow. In 1900, Reformed pastor and lifelong advocate of African American rights Francis Grimké implored his congregation to pray “to overcome the evil that is in us, to break the fetters of sin … and make us freemen indeed.”