The new federal holiday on June 19 has its roots in Galveston, Texas

GALVESTON, Texas — As a fiery sun rises over Galveston Island on the Texas coast, Sam Collins stands where history took place 157 years ago.

“Juneteenth’s birthplace is here at the southwest corner of 22n/a and Strand where General Gordon Granger set up his Union headquarters,” says Collins, co-chair of the Juneteenth Legacy Project and unofficial Juneteenth tourism ambassador to Galveston. “So while Juneteenth has become a national holiday the year last, it has always been important to the descendants of former slaves here in Galveston and throughout Texas.”

Visitors flock to this languid barrier island to splash around in the warm gulf waters, admire the graceful and historic architecture, eat oysters and stroll along the seawall. With the new June 19 federal holiday, signed into law last year by President Biden, the city hopes it will also become a landmark site of essential American history.

“You can read about Juneteenth. You can watch a documentary about Juneteenth,” Collins says, “but if you want to be immersed in history, you have to visit Galveston, Texas, and the sites associated with June 19, 1865.”

It was the day the Union general, who had recently sailed to Galveston to take command of the District of Texas, sent a brief order to the citizens that included the arrowed words: “All slaves are free.”

The building occupied by Union officers is long gone. It’s now a parking lot that overlooks a large mural depicting the history of June 19 and surrounded by ocean-themed gift shops, an Irish pub, and a store that sells gold rings. toe.

Two and a half years before Granger’s arrival, President Abraham Lincoln had issued his Emancipation Proclamation which legally freed three and a half million slaves in the Confederate States. But it was inapplicable in the defiant and slave-like south. It wasn’t until Federal troops finally arrived to occupy Galveston that Granger released General Orders No. 3which was called the Juneteenth Order, which freed 250,000 enslaved black people in Texas.

Texas was the last stop for Union troops who had crossed into the Confederate South and freed slaves as they went. What was so unique about the Juneteenth Order that it is now a federal holiday?

“That event was like a flash of lightning,” says Edward T. Cotham, Jr, Texas Civil War historian and author of Juneteenth, the story behind the celebration. “There is no natural freedom date for the whole country. Slaves were freed at wildly different times. But in Texas, the Union Army shows up. Now it’s over. I think that’s why the slaves took that order.”

“People have been celebrating this day for 156 years,” Cotham continues. “The federal government has finally made it a holiday.”

Sam Collins remembers his grandmother telling him the oral history passed down from generation to generation among black Galvestonians.

“It wasn’t a piece of paper that freed the slaves of Texas,” he says. “It was the men with the guns. It was the Union soldiers, many of whom were colored troops from the United States, who came forward and said to the plantation owners and slavers:” You must stop. These people are free. “”

On the island, Juneteenth has always been an intensely local celebration.

“I remember celebrating June 19 when I was little and having a barbecue and red soda water on June 19e, and the parades they had,” says Douglas Matthews, 71, a former Galveston city manager and now assistant vice president of the University of Texas Medical Branch. “At the far west of the island, where the seawall ends, are the city limits. Black people could go to the beaches there, but we couldn’t celebrate anywhere else.”

A local genealogist who is BOI (born on the island) says that when she was growing up, Juneteenth wasn’t even taught in school.

“It wasn’t in any textbook,” says Sharon Batiste Gillins. “We celebrated June 19 as a family. It was a family affair. It was a church affair.”

Gillins says that when she left for Howard University in 1969, June 19 celebrations were bigger and more public in Washington DC than they had been in Galveston. It was around 1979, when Texas declared Juneteenth a holiday, that Galveston began to celebrate it in style.

Now that it’s a holiday, just like MLK Day, Gillins cringes when she sees the June 19 party supplies in stores.

“Consistent with American culture, it’s already marketed,” she says. “We’re going to see things like the June 19 half-price sale.”

What is considered overkill? Last month Wal-Mart withdrew its “Celebration Edition: Juneteenth Ice Cream”, and apologized.

For Gillins, local pride comes with a dose of melancholy. “We’ve celebrated it for so long and now it’s national and we don’t own it like we used to,” she says.

Today, Juneteenth in Galveston is a week of nonstop parades, picnics, poetry readings, gospel music, and Freedom Tours. In two years, a group of entrepreneurs hope to have the 1861 American Customs House restored and reopened as the Juneteenth Museum. The Classic Revival-style brick building was occupied by the Confederate Army during the Civil War, then reoccupied by the federal government, which used it as a courthouse and post office.

Until recently, the structure was the headquarters of a Texas homebuilder until earlier this year when June 19 Museum Inc., based in Washington DC, acquired it. Company president Kevin L. Jackson said the future museum will include the history of Juneteenth as well as other relevant exhibits.

“We want the Juneteenth Museum to help eliminate the scourge of modern slavery and human trafficking,” Jackson said during a tour of the building. “And we envision having one of these rooms as an escape room that will tell the story of the Underground Railroad.”

Although there is a lot of attention paid to Galveston’s role in ending slavery in Texas, there is almost no mention of Galveston’s role in perpetuating slavery. The city, which was the state’s main seaport and trading center in the 19th century, had the largest slave auction house west of the Mississippi. John Seabrook Sydnor, a prominent businessman and mayor of Galveston, was the city’s leading slave trader. A newspaper advertising from 1862, “JS & JB Sydnor Auctions every Tuesday. Goods, Real Estate, Negroes, Cars, Furniture, etc.” The auction house was only a few blocks from where the nineteenth ordinance was signed. There are over 200 historical markers in Galveston, but none highlight the city’s role in the slave trade.

“Our city is putting out a very positive image, but there is a dark side to Galveston,” says retired Galveston Police Commander and Early Juneteenth Booster Eugene Lewis. “When you look at economic wealth, our prominent families were slave owners.”

Beyond the Juneteenth story, black Galvestonians would like to see recognition of their raw on the island: the oldest black Baptist church and the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in Texas. The first public high school for blacks in Texas. The home of Jack Johnson, the legendary “Galveston Giant”, who became the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion.

For many in Galveston, Juneteenth is deeply personal. June Collins Pulliam, headmistress of a local music academy, traces her lineage back to 1865. Her great-great-grandparents were Horace and Emily Scull, slaves to a family named Scull on the nearby Bolivar Peninsula.

“My great-great-grandparents and their young children were directly affected,” she says, “because with this announcement of General Orders #3, they were then released and were able to earn a living here in Galveston.” .

As a freedman, Horace Scull was a skilled and sought-after carpenter. He built his own house and the houses of other emancipated from the city. His son, RA Scull, became a preacher and teacher and taught in separate schools in Galveston for 52 years.

Juneteenth has come to mean so much to black Americans across the country “but even more, I think, to those of us who are right here in Galveston where it happened,” Pulliam says. “It’s something I cherish, something I’m just glad the world now recognizes.”

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