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Juneteenth & Tea Cakes

History of Juneteenth

Two years after the Emancipation Proclamation and six months after the Confederacy was defeated in the Civil War, Union Major General Gordon Granger reached Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, and told enslaved people that they were free from slavery and now full, equal citizens of the United States. 

He read to the people General Order No. 3:

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, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.

Juneteenth, a portmanteau of June nineteenth, has been celebrated since the first anniversary of Major General Granger’s reading of the proclamation that freed over 250,000 enslaved people in Galveston. The celebrations began in Texas but soon spread to other Black communities across the U.S. 

For many years, there was little to no interest outside of Black communities in the history or observance of Juneteenth. Festivities tapered off in the early twentieth century, however, interest reignited in the 1950s and 1960s, coinciding with the Civil Rights Movement. Since then, there have been efforts to make Juneteenth a national holiday. 

On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act making Juneteenth a federal holiday. 

Opening on June 12, 2024, the Castle Museum will unveil a small exhibit celebrating the efforts of Lula Briggs Galloway in making Juneteenth a federal holiday and for bringing Juneteenth to Saginaw. Everyone is welcome to join us for a Community Conversation with coffee and treats at 10 am when the museum opens. 

The Recipe: Celebrating with Tea Cakes

Juneteenth has always been celebrated with food, particularly soul foods. One less well known Southern creation that has always been connected to Juneteenth celebrations is the tea cake. Etha Robinson, teacher and baking entrepreneur, explained to NPR that tea cakes were made by enslaved people in a “rustic approximation of the delicate pastries consumed in front parlors when white women entertained visitors.” They were made with the supplies available, which were often less refined, substituting molasses for sugar, for example. 

Tea cake recipes were passed down from generation to generation, and often each family had its own closely guarded recipe. But, not exactly a recipe since most cooked from memory rather than written instructions. Over time recipes came to reflect growing access to ingredients that were once a luxury, like sugar. 

Many Black writers have referenced the importance of tea cakes in Black culture, including Maya Angelou. In her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou shared memories of her teacher who invited her to make tea cakes. She linked the cookies with her love of language arts and with the power of self-worth and dignity. 

Etha Robinson has named her tea cakes for Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, among many other accomplishments, because of her prize-winning baking skills. Next week, we will learn more about Bethune and her importance in U.S. history. Today, we will try a tea cake recipe credited to her, although the Castle Test Kitchen couldn’t authenticate that claim. The recipe is similar to the few printed resources available. 

Tea Cakes


3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for working surface

1 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

1 stick (4 oz) butter, room temperature

1 cup sugar

2 large eggs

¼ cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Demerara sugar, for sprinkling 


In a bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and nutmeg.

Cream together the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. Scrape down the sides of the bowl again. Beat in the buttermilk and vanilla. 

Gradually add the flour mixture, beating until just smooth. Divide the dough in half. Flatten each into a disc. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate until chilled and slightly stiff; ideally chill overnight.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.

On a lightly floured surface, working with one disc at a time, roll the dough to ¼ - inch thickness. Cut with a floured 1 ½ - inch round biscuit cutter. Gather scraps, reroll, and cut again. Sprinkle with demerara sugar and transfer to the baking sheet, spaced about one inch apart.

Bake until lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Cool on pan for one minute then transfer to a wire cooling rack. 

Makes about 2 dozen and will keep in an airtight container for about 2 weeks.


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