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Juneteenth was just the beginning of freedom for Black Texans

Joy Sewing | Houston Chronicle | June 13, 2021

Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

Few students in Khloe Thibodeaux’s history class know Juneteenth as anything more than a celebration, a Fourth of July for Black folks.

They know it has something to do with freedom and slavery, a time in the nation’s history that some would like to forget like a flickering memory.

As Juneteenth celebrations get underway across the nation, it’s time for deeper lessons about the significance of June 19, said Thibodeaux, a Houston high school teacher and board member of the Re-Education Project, a nonprofit to empower African American children. She hopes her students learn that there’s much more to the story.

“There’s a lot about Juneteenth that people don’t understand,” she said. “They think it’s about a festival, and are not really understanding that on June 19, 1865, yes, there was this word that slaves were free. But it took a lot longer for it to get across Texas. I want to give my students the facts of history and encourage them to draw their own conclusions.”

Juneteenth, once known as Jubilee Day, is the oldest celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. There’s a push to make it a national holiday, along with an effort to bring recognition to the proposed Emancipation Trail, a 51-mile route from Galveston to Houston, along which former enslaved families migrated to build their lives in the bustling city.

Texas was the first state to officially recognize Juneteenth in 1979; just three states — North Dakota, South Dakota and Hawaii — do not recognize it today.

Before Juneteenth became part of the national conversation in this time of racial reckoning, only a handful of states outside of Texas gave it any serious attention.

Last summer, many companies and cities used Juneteenth as a way to pledge a commitment to fight racism, following the murder of George Floyd and the international outrage it sparked. Protests over police brutality in the deaths of other Black Americans, including Breonna Taylor, also have fueled interest in the holiday. Companies such as Nike, Twitter and Target made it a paid holiday last year.

“Juneteenth celebrates the evolution of our country to a more perfect union,” said historian Sam Collins, co-chair of the Juneteenth Legacy Project. “We were not perfect in 1528, 1619, 1776, 1865 — or even today in 2021. But hopefully by studying this history and expanding the narrative to tell a more complete story of what happened, we will get a truer sense of our American history.”

On June 19, 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, according to historians, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston flanked by hundreds of Black soldiers — who are rarely if ever mentioned in history books — to announce that Texas’ 250,000 enslaved people were free. The news meandered across the Lone Star State — which means, for many, slavery did not end on Juneteenth.

It was just the beginning of freedom for Black Texans.

Juneteenth’s significance has been amplified by the effort of U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, and U.S. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a Republican, who co-authored a bill in 2019 for a federal study of a proposed Emancipation Trail. It would be the second trail to honor African American history. The first is the 54-mile trek between Selma and Montgomery in Alabama, the site of the civil rights marches led by Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump signed the Emancipation National Historic Trail Act authorizing such a study.

“As we look at the landscape of what is recognized in America, there are very few holidays that commemorate or help people understand the history of African Americans,” Jackson Lee said. “So when you have Juneteenth and the Emancipation Trail, it’s a beautiful partnership. We have a special history in Texas.”

The Emancipation Trail, which would be affiliated with the National Park Service, would begin in Galveston with stops at the Osterman Building, the location of the new 5,000-square-foot “Absolute Equality” mural by Houston artist Reginald C. Adams, and Reedy Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

Some historians believe Granger’s General Order No. 3 announcing the end of slavery was read at both these locations, but there is no evidence of that. The church, founded in 1848 as the first AME Church in Texas, is still a central part of the Black community in Galveston. (The official handwritten record of the order is preserved at the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.)

On Texas founding father Stephen F. Austin insisted Texas could not survive without slavery

The proposed trail would continue along Texas 3 with proposed stops at the 1867 Settlement Historic District in Texas City, which was founded by Black cowboys who were former enslaved men at the Butler Ranch. It would continue north on Interstate 45 to Houston and include cemeteries for those who had been enslaved — Harrisburg-Jackson in east Houston and Olivewood northwest of downtown. Other landmarks would include downtown Houston’s Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, built in 1866, and Fourth Ward’s Freedmen’s Town, which includes the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum; the Rev. Ned Pullum and Emma Eddy Pullum House; and the Gregory School, the first school for Black children in Houston.

The trail would end at Emancipation Park in Third Ward — the oldest park in Houston. Here, the Rev. Jack Yates led an effort to encourage freed men to pool their money and buy 10 acres of land as home for Juneteenth celebrations.

In 2017, Emancipation Avenue, which leads into the park, was renamed. It had been called Dowling Street after Confederate soldier Richard “Dick” Dowling.

“Juneteenth and the Emancipation Trail call attention to places that have been silent for a long time,” said Lucy Bremond, executive director of the Emancipation Park Conservancy. “There are people who are asking about Juneteenth, and it’s not just African Americans. People all over the world people are calling to find out information. They are wanting to know the real meaning of Juneteenth and how they can share it with the next generation. Hopefully, they become more compassionate around the issue of slavery and independence of Black Americans.”

This year, the pandemic has forced some Juneteenth celebration organizers to scale back. No major parades are planned in Houston.

The Emancipation Park Conservancy will celebrate virtually with its #WeAreJuneteenth campaign highlighting small businesses, volunteerism and health in a series of discussions on its Facebook page. But next year, the park will celebrate 150 years with a bang.

The Yates Museum in Freedmen’s Town is commemorating Juneteenth with a music performance Wednesday at Mount Horeb Missionary Baptist Church, with limited seating and a virtual panel discussion exploring the Black church.

The museum, which includes six historic homes once owned by freedmen and their descendants, recently received $25,000 from H-E-B to help with preservation and restoration. It has raised $150,000 of its $350,000 goal to celebrate the museum’s 25th anniversary in December. Freedmen’s Town, like many African American landmarks, is racing to protect and preserve its history. Since 1985, more than 500 historic homes and six churches have been demolished.

Should Juneteenth become a national holiday, it could bring more awareness to the importance of preserving those historic sites.

“Juneteenth is valuable as an educational tool toward cultural understanding and appreciation of this particular ethnic population, who were enslaved and marginalized,” said Catherine Roberts, co-founder and board member of the Yates Museum. “By celebrating Juneteenth, it informs all of America that this is an opportunity to build some racial bridge. Understanding the difficulties and the accomplishments of a population that was enslaved and then freed is so valuable to healing in this country. It’s needed by America to recognize how much African Americans contributed to the building of America.”

For educators like Thibodeaux, the Juneteenth story is an important part of not only Texas history, but America’s story. In 2020, the Texas State Board of Education approved an African American studies course, including Juneteenth, for students to take in public high schools.

But new legislation called the 1836 Project, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law this week, has critics worried that it will restrict lessons about the state’s history of slavery. It establishes a committee to promote "patriotic education." Also House Bill 3979, which Abbott has yet to sign, limits the discussion of critical race theory, which is based on the idea that racism is a social construct, stemming not only from individual bias or prejudice, but also from systemic practices in the legal system and policies.

Thibodeaux believes the legislation may be detrimental to students and teachers, some of whom might not understand the scope of the issue, she said.

“Critical race theory is not something that most high school teachers in the state of Texas are teaching,” she said. “In order to get a high school student to understand it, you would need a full course on just critical race theory. So it’s almost impossible to think that a high school teacher is wholeheartedly teaching a lesson on this.”

But Black history — including slavery — should be an integral part of the curriculum, Thibodeaux said.

“I hope that every African American student leaves my class with an understanding of their history and the impact that their ancestors have made,” she said. “I hope students who are not of African descent become more knowledgeable about what happened on Juneteenth because it gives us tolerance and understanding of those who are different from us. We need that.”


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