Juneteenth holiday holds a special meaning in Texas. Today marks the anniversary of the day in 1865 when slaves in Texas learned they were free. And 149 years later, the nation’s highest office is held by a freely elected (and re-elected) African-American.
Many East Texas communities, including Tyler, commemorated the day last Saturday.
But Galveston — where the announcement was made that slaves were free — has a unique perspective on the holiday.
“Sue Johnson, who runs the Nia Cultural Center in Galveston, was amazed to learn that when slaves found out they were free, they immediately tried to find lost family members — and that the celebration of their emancipation was largely on black-owned land,” the Galveston County Daily News reports.
“Juneteenth means family to me,” she told that newspaper. “It helps me to reflect on the strength of a people who had endured and survived such massive inhumanity. They sought out lost family members because most of the time, they had no clue of where they were; however, they went to great lengths to find them. Juneteenth helps me to understand the sanctity and importance of the family to the enslaved.”
East Texans also understand the significance of Juneteenth and what it celebrates.
“Texas has this unique aspect in that we didn’t hear about it right away,” University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler President Kirk Calhoun has said of the two-and-a-half year delay in getting the news. “Slavery was a very important event in our history. Obviously, for African-Americans, it’s a legacy that we will certainly not forget and the country should never forget. So, to be celebrating a time when we learned that those injustices were finally overturned has to mean an awful lot to all of us.”
In 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger read these words from a balcony in Galveston:
“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.”
But his speech didn’t end there. No one was quite sure how the newly freed slaves would react. Granger added some warning that today sound overly stern.
“The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages,” he said. “They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
Of course, that’s not how the freemen responded at all. Some left Texas for the North or other Southern states, in a search for family members. Many stayed in Texas and either sought employment or created new opportunities for themselves.
The holiday has spread far beyond Texas’ borders. Now 43 states have some kind of Juneteenth observance.
The Declaration of Independence said “all men are created equal.”
The Juneteenth announcement was a big step toward bringing that truth to Texas.