Juneteenth: Real History

by Aussie Meyer aussie@compassnet.com

One of the great truisms of my hometown of Galveston is "Never underestimate the power of historical little old ladies." The joint is a tourist town, an island with beaches, and a long and rowdy history. Our old ladies did us a boon by turning a district of ratty old waterfront warehouses into a pretty impressive historical district, with festivals and chi-chi little hotels and restaurants to draw a winter tourist trade. It's quite major, as one of our homeboys is a billionaire who's appeared in the Fortune magazine rankings for top rich boy a number of times, and historical Galveston is his particular pet.

The big historical district is called The Strand. At the heart of it, at 22nd & Strand, there's a number of museums in various restored buildings, surrounded by restaurants and shops. Tens of thousands of tourists stroll by in the course of a year, maybe more. It's got just about everything, but what it doesn't have is a historical marker saying:

"On June 19, 1865, Union General Granger delivered General Order #3 on this spot, declaring:
'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 laborer.'"

It doesn't have a marker like that because nobody in Galveston knows that, or if they know it, they don't talk about it. Black folks in Texas know that June 19th is the day, though, because they've always had a barbecue picnic on that day. It's called Juneteenth. In 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday - so State employees get off, but not too many other employers recognize it. That doesn't stop black people from missing work and having a barbecue picnic. In 133 years, nothing much has stopped black folks in Texas from missing work and having a barbecue picnic on Juneteenth...

...except urbanization and integration into a mainstream workplace and all that. I've heard urban, sophisticated African-Americans say that Juneteenth is foolishness, a "made-up" holiday. They're embarassed by the funny name, the tradition of drinking red soda pop, and so on. It's that awful watermelon stigma that taints all things that are simple and fun; and a yearning to forget the slavery thing.

But time goes by, and as the media treats Juneteenth as more of a serious event each year, fewer people make light of it. As people outside of Texas begin to recognize Juneteenth, people in Texas begin to value it more.

Heaven knows, it's not made up, and the reason for the funny name, "Juneteenth", is serious. Juneteenth was the celebration of former slaves who'd been denied the tools of literacy; "Juneteenth" helped them remember the day in oral history. It was a day of overwhelming importance to the freedmen. They spent their little money to buy common grounds to hold their Juneteenth celebrations on, "emancipation grounds". Emancipation Park in Houston was bought in 1872. Other communities across the state have similar spots.

There's a neighborhood in Houston's Fourth Ward named "Freedmen's Town", with narrow, brick-paved streets, and people still living in shotgun shacks. Shotgun houses were actually an architectural innovation brought to America from Africa via Haiti and New Orleans, although I don't suppose the people who have to live in them know that.

So what's real history? The "Dickens on the Strand" festival that brings my hometown tourist bucks each winter, the locals in period drag, like Wiliamsburg, pretending to be Oliver Twists and Artful Dodgers? Or Juneteenth? I'm going down to the island on June 19th, and I'm going to go stand on the corner at 22nd & Strand, and close my eyes and see if I can see it. One third of the people in Texas were slaves; hell, Galveston was probably the last slave port, the last slave market in America. There were black faces in that crowd, listening to the news, dropping their burdens, hugging each other.

I'll probably be the only person on that corner thinking about it, though. The Juneteenth celebration will be elsewhere, Galveston has a black majority now, I'm sure it'll be a good one.

But I'm going to stand there and visualize a big future monument, a freedom arch, something beautiful: "Slavery in Texas ended here." There's a good possibility that slavery in America ended there, but I can't verify it. I feel the need to tell somebody, to tell a lot of people. One way or another, in the next few years, I will.