Juneteenth in Texas

By Chase, Henry | American Visions, June-July 1997 | Go to article overview

Juneteenth in Texas


Chase, Henry, American Visions


On June 19, 1865 -- 10 weeks after Confederate General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox -- Union General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas, and drove the last nail into slavery's coffin, proclaiming: "The people of Texas are informed all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights of property between masters and slaves." Granger's proclamation ignited a chain of spontaneous, freedom celebrations that rippled across the state and spread throughout the Southwest.

The anniversary of freedom was not to be forgotten by people who had spent their entire lives in bondage -- people for whom the lash had been a common punishment, but whose sting had been ephemeral compared with the pain of family separations, the indignity of compelled deference, the thought that only the grave would bring emancipation. So in the ensuing years, the joyous events of June 19, 1865, were reenacted, becoming codified as Juneteenth celebrations. Best Sunday dress, American flags, thankful prayer, music, baseball games and massive quantities of food characterized these African-American gatherings.

Juneteenth retained its vibrancy in Texas well into the 20th century, until the generation born into slavery had passed and the first shoots of integration pierced the Southern soil in the aftermath of World War II. Much of white Texas saw its own best interests served in these ritual Emancipation gatherings. Texas governors issued proclamations formally endorsing Juneteenth, and white businessmen (who placed their annual, one-time advertisements in black newspapers, such as The Houston Informer) profited from the celebrations. Juneteenth was no minor affair: The 75th anniversary event, in 1930, drew nearly 200,000 people to Dallas during the Texas State Fair; 15 years later, 70,000 folks added $150,000 to the coffers of city businesses.

But paralleling the slow, drawn-out death of formal segregation in Texas came a winding down of Juneteenth. Integration, urbanization, television, the passage of time, the blind eye turned toward the disturbing folk memories of slavery day -- all leached energy. By the late 1960s, Juneteenth's emancipation gatherings were in danger of being swept away like the Texas topsoil in a hard north wind.

In more recent years, however, Juneteenth in Texas has witnessed a steady, if slow, revival. For almost two decades, it has been an official state holiday, thanks to House Bill 1016, introduced in the Texas Legislature by Rep. Al Edwards in 1979 and signed into law by then Gov. Clements. Six years before Martin Luther King Jr.'s life was honored with a national holiday, Texas was sending its citizens home with pay on June 19, becoming the first state in the Union to so honor an African American.

Since then, lively Juneteenth celebrations are reported each year, particularly in San Antonio and Houston -- excellent reasons to check out two of Texas, most vibrant and entertaining towns.

SAN ANTONIO

This year, San Antonio's Juneteenth festivities run from June 10 to June 22. Highlights include the annual San Antonio Zulu Association Picnic and the Juneteenth Film Festival, sponsored by St. Philip's College. (Founded in 1898 as an industrial school for girls, St. Philip's became the city's first institute of higher learning for African Americans.) The city will also host the Bible World 17th Annual Juneteenth Freedom Fair, which opens with a Pre-Juneteenth Gospel Celebration, in La Villita, a historic neighborhood with brick- and tile-paved streets and adobe, wood and brick buildings. Rep. Edwards will be the master of ceremonies. Also in La Villita during June will be an African-American arts and crafts exhibition. Gospel is not the only musical tradition highlighted this year in San Antonio: The Texas Juneteenth Festival features Gladys Knight, Al Green and the Ohio Players, while live blues, rhythm and blues and jazz take the stage at the Juneteenth Jam Festival. …

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