GALVESTON – This town has an assortment of neighborhoods such as beautiful old mansions next to pawn shops. The mansions were probably built in a neighborhood of mansions at that time. Here is one example: Ashton Villa, a magnificent home now sitting across the street from a seedy-looking loan company. Scattered around the area are equally well-worn establishments. It was built by James Moreau Brown, beginning in 1859. The family occupied the house until at least 1926. But what happened on the villa’s second story balcony changed Texas’ history and, eventually, America’s. In a word: Juneteenth.
Actually, according to the calendar, the date was June 19th, but this year even Apple added Juneteenth to its calendars under official U.S. holidays. The date was recently celebrated, but if you’re new to Texas, Pilgrim, we’ll discuss why. During the Civil war, on Sept. 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued General Order #3, better known as the Emancipation Proclamation, effective as of Jan.1, 1863. It declared that all enslaved persons in the Confederate States of America in rebellion and not in Union hands were to be freed. This order excluded the five states known later as border states, which were slave states but not in rebellion. So when you think about it, who exactly was freed? Not a soul. A noble gesture, but absolutely meaningless.
Here in Texas, although most slaves lived in rural areas, by 1860 more than 1,000 resided in both Galveston and Houston. The war actually caused the number of slaves to increase in Texas as slave owners fled here from eastern states to escape the fighting, and many brought their slaves with them. At the end of the Civil War, there were an estimated 250,000 slaves in Texas. (San Antonio, being mostly Hispanic, had only168 among a population of 3,436.) As for Galveston, it was the only part of Texas that was conquered and occupied by the Yankees. As part of the Union blockade of Confederate ports, on Oct. 4, 1862, eight Union warships entered Galveston harbor and demanded the Rebels’ surrender. After a brief skirmish, the Southerners, commanded by Col. Joseph J. Cook, struck a truce and left, having already sent their heavy artillery ahead. So with gunboats off shore, 264 men of the Forty-second Massachusetts Infantry, led by Col. I. S. Burrell, finally arrived on Dec. 25 to occupy and patrol the town.
Maj. Gen. John Bankhead Magruder took command of Confederate forces in the fall of 1862, and, showing far more courage than his predecessor, started planning to recapture Galveston. On New Year’s night, with a combination of armed river steamers offshore, and dismounted cavalry and infantry crossing the railroad bridge (wouldn’t you think the Yankees would have burned that bridge by then?) the Rebels stormed Galveston. In fierce hand to hand combat, the Union forces were pushed back. Their warships simply sailed away, leaving the hapless Yankees no choice but to surrender. Galveston remained in Confederate hands until the end of the war.
Now we come to Juneteenth. Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, but word was slow to get to Texas. Indeed, the last land battle of the Civil War was fought in South Texas, and the Confederates won. On June 18, 1865, Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger arrived at Galveston with 2,000 federal troops to occupy Texas. The following day, standing on the balcony of Ashton Villa, Granger read aloud the contents of General Order No. 3 announcing the total emancipation of the slaves. They were advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. “They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” Since this occurred on June the nineteenth, it became Juneteenth, a portmanteau. And what, exactly, is a portmanteau? It’s a new word made up of parts of other words. Smog was coined by blending smoke and fog, and motel, from motor and hotel.
Anyway, upon hearing the news, Galveston’s former slaves celebrated, and a year later the freedmen, as they were then called, organized the first of what became the annual celebration of Juneteenth in Texas. According to the Handbook of Texas, in some cities African-Americans were barred from using public parks because of state-sponsored segregation of facilities. Across parts of Texas, freed people pooled their funds to purchase land to hold their celebrations, such as Houston’s Emancipation Park, Mexia’s Booker T. Washington Park, and Emancipation Park in Austin.
In the early 20th century, attention flagged and Juneteenth lost some of its movement, but during the Great Depression and during World War II, many black Texans moved to the west coast and to northern cities seeking work or just to get away from the segregated Lone Star State. They took with them the celebration and meaning of Juneteenth, and soon blacks in such places as Portland, Maine, and Flint, Michigan, held their own celebrations. Oh, and in Paris, France. As historian Isabel Wilkerson wrote, “The people from Texas took Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other places they went.” The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s put Juneteenth back in favor, and following the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign to Washington D.C. called by Rev. Ralph Abernathy, many attendees, first hearing about the celebration from Texans, returned home and formed Juneteenth celebrations in new areas.
In 1980, Texas became the first state to establish Juneteenth as a state holiday — state government offices do not close but may operate with reduced staff, or a skeleton crew. As of May 2016, 45 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia had recognized Juneteenth as either a state holiday or ceremonial holiday, a day of observance. States that do not recognize it are Hawaii, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota and South Dakota, mainly because none of them has any blacks to celebrate.
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