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Juneteenth And Ohio's Emancipation Proclamation Celebrations

The new year is celebrated in January, but June 19 is a day of new beginnings, too.

On June 19, 1865, slaves in Galveston, Texas, learned they were freed. More than 100 years later, the holiday known as Juneteenth has become a national observance of emancipation.

Juneteenth is celebrated in 45 states, including Ohio, and billed as the oldest known commemoration of the ending of slavery.

But that honor actually belongs to the tiny town of Gallipolis in southern Ohio. Residents have marked the Emancipation Proclamation since Sept. 22, 1863, a year after it was signed.

In fact, Gallipolis continues a practice that was once widespread across the country.

Celebration dates have varied. September was a more prevalent choice in the Midwest, while Southern states marked the date on Jan. 1. Chalk up the differences to the history of the document itself.

President Abraham Lincoln signed a preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, but that order was only effective if rebelling states surrendered. When they didn’t, a final draft was signed on Jan. 1, 1863.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Emancipation Day was a huge event, marked with parades, pageants and politicians. A September celebration in 1901 in Columbus drew 2,000 people, including Gov. George Nash.

Dayton’s 1918 Emancipation Day celebration began with a parade and ended with a grand ball. Organizers noted the commemoration occurred while the nation was at war.

“On account of the great patriotic atmosphere, a greater interest than usual attaches to the observance of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation,” the Dayton Forum reported. Organizers urged attendees to come out and march to honor African-American soldiers serving in World War I.

Cleveland’s celebration in 1920 was held in September at Luna Park, the city’s “Fairy Land of Pleasure.” But there was no escaping prejudice and segregation. The park's swimming pool was drained so the attendees couldn't use it.

Wherever the event, organizers understood some folks were coming for a good time. A speaker at the 1881 celebration in Preble County planned to stump for the Republican Party — the party of Lincoln. But the organizers had a plan B. A poster promoting the event urged visitors to come out whether they cared for politics or not. "If you do not like the speaker, you can eat ice cream and drink lemonade,” it said.

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