Tucker C. Tool | National Geographic | June 18, 2021
Roxy Williamson, a Galveston, Texas native, political activist, and volunteer with the Juneteenth Legacy Project stands for a portrait at the Strand District of Galveston by the city's old port. She recently returned home after living in Atlanta for decades.
GALVESTON, TEXASWhen Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas on June 19th, 1865 and declared an end to slavery, enslaved people already knew that enslavement had ended, contrary to popular lore. But it would take more than a century for the nation to formally recognize that momentous date.
President Joe Biden signed legislation into law on Thursday which now makes June 19th, or Juneteenth, a federal holiday—placing that date at the same level of other important milestones of United States history. Many black Americans have long enjoyed the Juneteenth holiday among family, friends, and loved ones but with the new federal holiday, it will finally be recognized by all Americans.
President Biden acknowledged the gravity of the day in history: "This is a day of profound weight and profound power, a day in which we remember the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take."
The birthplace of this holiday sits on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles from Houston. That’s where Union Gen. Granger issued five orders to the citizens of Galveston. The most significant of them was General Order Number 3, which ended the enslavement of Black people in Texas. Granger issued this order a full two-and-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed—making enslaved people in Texas victims of a practice outlawed in the rest of the nation.
The newly freed Black people of Galveston began to use June 19th a year later as a day to honor and celebrate their freedom. As they migrated to the surrounding states and across the country, they continued to commemorate that date with celebrations in their new homes.
But the significance of that date remains lost among many Americans, including some of Galveston's Black residents. Among them is Angela Wilson. The 50-year-old is the first black community news editor for the Galveston County Daily News, the oldest newspaper in Texas. She remembers going to Juneteenth gatherings and growing up knowing that it was a celebration held in her community and by her family. But it wasn't until she started working at the newspaper in 2007 that she learned about General Order Number 3 and why Juneteenth was so important.
"I started learning about it and then that's when I became more passionate about it. I was like, ‘Okay, this is in my hometown!’" Wilson says. "And it's just something that we need to know, and other people need to know. So, it just made me really proud to know that Juneteenth was birthed here, that it was the last stop and then it became a reality.
“The fourth of July has a different meaning,” she says, “because technically all of us weren't free on the 4th of July."
Wilson and many others believe that one of the main reasons Black residents aren't as educated about the holiday is because of school integration. In the 1960s, Texas’ first Black high school, Central, served as a hub for Black students across various states.
"Central was the first Black high school and people from Louisiana, Oklahoma, and other states sent their kids," Wilson says. “Back in the day, they didn't have high schools for Black people. Central was the only one and people used to send their kids to Galveston."
David O'Neal, a Central graduate, has been a pillar of the community for decades as a historian and educator of Juneteenth and Galveston's Black history. He believes knowledge of Black history was lost once Central shut its doors.
"Central high school has been closed since 1968, which means over 50 years," says O'Neal, 73. "So the narrative or the passing of Juneteenth was severed, starting really before ‘68 because that's when the high schools integrated. But the new elementary schools were already integrating in ‘64 and ‘65. So that means a lot of kids don't know (about Juneteenth).”
Unlike many of the other Galveston residents who were unaware of the holiday’s significance, O'Neal's great-grandfather was born in 1872 and relayed many stories to him of how Juneteenth was celebrated.
"We would always go back there (Galveston) for the 19th of June, because it was such a big, big, thing to go to church,” O’Neal recounted from family members who did not live on the island. “Every little church would have a big function. They would have an event all day, no matter what day Juneteenth was on that's when they did this."
Samuel Collins, a historian and president of the Juneteenth Legacy Project, says that an important element often left out in the story of Juneteenth is the number of black soldiers who accompanied Granger to deliver the news of freedom.
"We, unfortunately, continued this narrative of Granger coming basically by himself. Nobody talked about the thousands of troops. Seventy-five percent of the soldiers that came into Texas were United States colored troops," Collins says. "So, you know, we're taught to remember the Alamo in Texas, which was a loss. But here, the Union soldiers that actually won were these Black soldiers. It's not in any history books that I was ever given when I was a child or even in college, none of the history books told me that 75 percent, three out of four Union soldiers were Black men that stood up straight with a gun and a badge and weapons used to bring freedom to the enslaved people of Texas."
Following the Emancipation Proclamation, the military formed the United States Colored Troops. More than 186,000 Black Americans joined the U.S. armed forces, including an estimated 93,542 soldiers who were formerly enslaved people.
Genealogist and historian, Sharon Gillins, is a Galveston native who celebrated Juneteenth as a youth. But she didn't learn the facts about the day until 1969 when she arrived at Howard University where Juneteenth celebrations were held.
"I went to college and there was a much greater emphasis on the awareness of the history of African Americans, especially at Howard," Gillins says. "And so they were having large celebrations in Washington, DC when I was a student there and that's when I started realizing these are bigger than the ones we have at home!"
Years later, Gillins wrote an essay for Prairie View A&M University titled "The Day Freedom Came" where she details how many of the enslaved people knew that they had been freed but remained enslaved despite the Emancipation Proclamation.
"For years, many years, the narrative was that Black people didn't know they were free in Texas. That is absolutely not true,” Gillins says. “Just because many Black people couldn't read, they had a network of information. They knew what was going on, but Confederates were still in charge.
"The last battle of the war here in Galveston was January 1st, 1863 and the Confederates won, they ousted the Union control,” Gillins says. “So they were still in charge in 1865. So enslaved people could not just walk away because they had the guns!"
Wilson, of the Galveston County Daily News, says she also learned that enslaved people knew of their freedom but were forced to continue in the confederate practices of slavery.
"They really weren't free, it was still the same way,” she says “Think about it. It was technically free. It was just you're free, but you're still going get out there and pick my cotton, still going to get out there to tend my fields, you're still going to cook my food."
With a racial reckoning continuing to make strides across America—emboldened by last summer's nationwide protests against the murder of George Floyd and other victims of police violence—, Juneteenth now has it’s place in history.
In Galveston, Collins and members of the Juneteenth Legacy Project have been working to provide monuments, art, and other events to commemorate the holiday.
In April, a 5,000-square-foot mural, entitled "Absolute Equality” was completed in Downtown Galveston in the same location where Granger issued General Order Number 3. Collins believes this mural will spark viewers' interest in Juneteenth and allow them to educate themselves about the history.
"General Order Number 3 includes in the second sentence, 'This involves an absolute equality.' So we're still on a March forward for absolute equality.”