26th United States Colored Volunteer Infantry at Camp William Penn., c. 1897. (National Archives at College Park/Wikimedia Commons)

The Philadelphia region has a direct tie to the events of Juneteenth, the commemoration of the date, three years after it had been proclaimed, when the announcement of emancipation from slavery finally reached Galveston, Texas.

At the time, the top training center for Black Union Army volunteers in free territories was Camp William Penn, located in Cheltenham, right outside the city.

Soldiers trained there were part of the army corps that secured Union control of Galveston a few days before Major General Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3, the proclamation of freedom, on June 19, 1865.

It was just one of the many feats accomplished by soldiers organized and deployed at Camp William Penn, said Ron Brown, founder of the Pennsylvania Juneteenth Coalition.

“That was the cream of the crop in the community,” said Brown, who started celebrating Juneteenth in Germantown in 1995 and has helped spread celebrations around the city and commonwealth ever since. 

An unlikely collaboration to train Black soldiers

Created a few months after the Emancipation Proclamation, on June 26, 1863, Camp William Penn existed because of a joint effort between Philadelphia’s white elites, Black civic and religious leaders, a federal government pressed for manpower, and the men who volunteered to serve.  

The Union League formed in Philadelphia in 1862 as one site in a network of (often monied) Union-supporting political groups. It was strictly for upper-class men, and primarily concerned with seeing the Union army defeat the Confederates, not the ending of slavery. 

But with pamphleteering and other methods, the Union League moved onto efforts to raise troops of Black soldiers. At first the efforts faltered; the War Department rebuffed initial offers to raise three regiments. 

When the Bureau of Colored Troops was created on May 22, 1863, and as local resistance to the idea of Black men serving waned, a lane was cleared for collaboration between deep-pocketed, well-connected League members and officials managing the war effort. 

Just over a month after the ice thawed at the federal level, Camp William Penn opened 8 miles north of Philly in the Cheltenham town of La Mott

Some Black people in the region were too eager to fight to wait for the camp to be set up — around 1,100 men had already left Philly to enlist in the 54th and 55th United States Colored Troops regiments up in Massachusetts. 

A Union recruitment poster from 1865, Philadelphia. (N. Flayderman & Co./Wikimedia Commons)

Events held to raise awareness of recruitment efforts brought out prominent Black Philadelphians like Octavius V. Catto, Jacob C. White, and Professor Ebenezer Bassett, who in turn enlisted national figures like Frederick Douglass.

All told, historical records show that 10,940 Black soldiers and roughly 400 white officers from across the Commonwealth and the surrounding region were trained at the camp from June 1863 to May 1865. 

“When [the Union Army] was losing, especially when they started losing pretty bad in Virginia, then they said, ‘Okay, we are going to allow these USCT from Camp William Penn and some of the other USCT to assist us,’” recounted Brown, of the Juneteenth Coalition.

And assist they did. A variety of USCT regiments joined the fight at critical junctures, including Camp William Penn’s 6th and 22nd, who played a role in the all-important Petersburg campaign.

All told, 11 regiments — the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 22nd, 24th, 25th, 32nd, 41st, 43rd, 45th, and 127th — were raised at Camp William Penn. Fellow free states Massachusetts, Ohio, New York, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa raised 12 regiments all together. 

‘It wasn’t a celebration’

Records of troop movement and army organization show that the 22nd United States Colored Regiment, trained at William Penn, was part of 18th Army Corps during their operations in the South. 

The USCT element of that corps and the 10th Army Corps were reorganized into the 25th Army Corps, the largest all-Black unit during the Civil War, and the only all-Black corps in U.S. military history. 

The 25th was assigned to posts in Texas in late May 1865, as part of an effort to secure the nation’s borders against the French invasion of Mexico and put a check on remaining Confederates. It was an ultimately successful, disease-wracked mission which saw many soldiers succumb to illness. 

Granger, the Union general who issued the order in Galveston on that fateful June 19, had the path cleared for him by members of the 25th Army Corps. 

A brigade from the corps captured the city of Galveston on June 5, and troops were moving through the town to post further South throughout the month. Some regiments from Indiana, Illinois, and New York were already in Galveston on Juneteenth, bolstering the 2,000 troops that came with Granger. 

“Sic semper tyrannis” — flag of the 22th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops. (Library of Congress)

While it’s unclear whether Camp William Penn-trained troops took the city, it’s clear that many made fit for service in Cheltenham moved through the area at the time and ensured the peace among Texans clearly reluctant to give up on slavery.

Brown, the Juneteenth historian and organizer, made it clear that though the holiday was initially called “Jubilee Day,” the actual moment of the reading wasn’t one of open celebration. 

“It wasn’t a celebration that really took place on that day,” said Brown. “Because Order No. 3 said, ‘Even though you’re free, now you’ve got to go back to your slave master’s quarters and work for him.’”

Sure enough, the order closes by admonishing freedmen “to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages” and informing them that “they will not be supported in idleness” — a foreshadowing of the Black Codes that would emerge in the years to come. 

“They had to be off the streets by sundown, or they were going to have to work on the ships and work in the fields,” said Brown.

That’s the complicated part of Juneteenth. It was freedom, but freedom “delivered” late and incompletely. Slavery continued in Galveston after June 19. 

Brown still sees deep significance in the date, because of what was hinging on the USCT and Union army’s actions: the rediscovery, reconstitution, and recreation of Black families. 

“The first Jubilee celebrations were also the first family reunions,” Brown said. “Those were the stakes.”

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...