This year’s parade is dedicated to Rachel Townsend, the stalwart leader of San Francisco’s Juneteenth who passed away earlier this year. In her honor the parade has been renamed the Rachel Brooke Townsend San Francisco Juneteenth Parade.
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – which had become official January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.
Later attempts to explain this two and a half year delay in the receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years. Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another, is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another, is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All of which, or neither of these version could be true. Certainly, for some, President Lincoln’s authority over the rebellious states was in question For whatever the reasons, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory.
General Order Number 3
One of General Granger’s first orders of business was to read to the people of Texas, General Order Number 3 which began most significantly with:
“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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”
The reactions to this profound news ranged from pure shock to immediate jubilation. While many lingered to learn of this new employer to employee relationship, many left before these offers were completely off the lips of their former ‘masters’ – attesting to the varying conditions on the plantations and the realization of freedom. Even with nowhere to go, many felt that leaving the plantation would be their first grasp of freedom. North was a logical destination and for many it represented true freedom, while the desire to reach family members in neighboring states drove the some into Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Settling into these new areas as free men and women brought on new realities and the challenges of establishing a heretofore non-existent status for black people in America. Recounting the memories of that great day in June of 1865 and its festivities would serve as motivation as well as a release from the growing pressures encountered in their new territory. The celebration of June 19th was coined “Juneteenth” and grew with more participation from descendants. The Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.
 African-Americans have celebrated the abolition of slavery in San Francisco since 1855. Rev. T.M.D. Ward, a nephew of abolitionist Rev. Samuel Ringgold Ward, spoke at the annual celebration of Emancipation in the British West Indies in 1855 soon after arriving to become pastor of what was to become Bethel A.M.E. Church. That annual festival grew to the point that it was moved to Hayes Park by 1862, an indication of how many had Caribbean ties.
Col. Tom Hayes, owner of Hayes Park, was one of a number of prominent Republicans and Union Army leaders from San Francisco who were influenced by the abolition movement in San Francisco. Those white abolitionists worked hand-in-hand with the seven black churches, in the city in the 1850s, three of which continue to fight for social justice to this day – Bethel, First A.M.E. Zion and Third Baptist Church.
Among them were John C. Fremont, first candidate of the Republican Party in 1856 and William Tecumseh Sherman, a banker in San Francisco in the 1850s who became a major general in the Union Army. Union generals like Sherman began declaring an end to slavery in the states they conquered from the Confederate states as early as 1862, even before the Emancipation Proclamation. Those generals also helped influence President Abraham Lincoln to begin enlisting U.S. Colored Troops into the Union Army in 1862, along with the advocacy from black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, a close associate of Rev. Ward and Rev. J. B. Sanderson. The first issue of the San Francisco Elevator on April 7, 1865 devoted its front page to the transcript of a meeting held by Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton with Georgia blacks. On June 23, 1865, the Elevator reported that the grand celebration of emancipation in the West Indies was scheduled for August 1 at Hayes Park. Sanderson was president with vice presidents George Washington Dennis, David Ruggles and Ed Quinn with Ward as chaplain.
The first Emancipation Day marking the end of U.S. slavery in San Francisco was scheduled Jan. 1, 1869, according to the Elevator.  By then, Texas blacks had made the date of the last general order,
In 1950 Dr. Wesley Johnson Sr. invited the Bay Area’s African American community to celebrate a June 19th celebration at the Texas playhouse on Fillmore Street, a popular lounge he owned. The first parade was led by Johnson and the former San Francisco Mayor Willie L. Brown Jr. At that first parade, they rode out on white horses, wearing Stetson cowboy hats. The community businesses and residents enthusiastically supported that first Juneteenth celebration and it quickly become a much-anticipated date on the summer calendar. Many people in the parade were proud and pleased to be involved in celebrating the freedom of African Americans in this country.

A S.F. Juneteenth favorite. A Fillmore staple.

Today the historic San Francisco Juneteenth is one of the largest African American celebrations in California and it’s sole purpose is for historical awareness, building self esteem with our youth, connecting organizations with the community and providing opportunity for African American vendors to market their business and showcase their craft.
The San Francisco Juneteenth Festival Committee is committed to continue the historical tradition of our ancestors by celebrating this holiday to nurture and facilitate the empowerment of our community through education, partnerships, and interaction with community resources that our committed to community enrichment.