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Texas History: The story of Juneteenth in Houston and its significance to black communities across the US

HOUSTON – On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston with the news that the war had ended and enslaved people had been freed more than two years earlier by the Emancipation Proclamation.

On June 21, 1865, the Tri-Weekly Telegraph reported Gen. Granger traveled from New Orleans to Texas to deliver his first five orders issued by the United States.

Portrait of Brigadier General Gordon Granger
Portrait of Brigadier General Gordon Granger (eGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)

One of the orders included Order Number 3, which read, “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 labor. The freed are advised to remain 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.”

General Oder, No. 3 clipping from June 19, 1865
General Oder, No. 3 clipping from June 19, 1865 (Tri-Weekly Telegraph)

According to our history books, on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

Since the Civil War was still underway when the proclamation was signed, those states that seceded from the Union, including Texas, did not adhere to the Proclamation. The Civil War ended in April of 1865, and that’s when Gen. Granger and his troops traveled to Galveston to deliver this new executive of the United States.

Texas was the last state to see it’s enslaved populations freed. It took 2.5 years after the proclamation for approximately 250,000 slaves in Texas to be freed that June 19, after 250 years of unspeakable human misery.

Although the first celebrations were more of political rallies, it wasn’t until 1867 after Texas’s emancipation when Juneteenth was marked by festivities.

Throughout Texas, communities of formerly enslaved people celebrated the remembrance through formal thanksgiving ceremonies, parades, and events. According to the Texas State Historical Association, this became part of the calendar of public events by 1872 under the direction of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

That same year, a new tradition would begin in our own city. In 1872, former slave Rev. Jack Yates along with a few other community members, who were also former slaves, united to raise $1,000 to purchase ten acres of parkland to host Juneteenth celebrations. This land on Dowling Street became known as Emancipation Park.

However, the magnitude of Juneteenth celebrations declined through the years due to economic and cultural forces. During the 1970’s late Houston Democrat Rep. Al Edwards introduced a bill calling for Juneteenth to become state holiday. It wasn’t until 1979 when Governor Wililam P. Clement Jr. signed into law, becoming the first state to recognize “Emancipation Day” as an official holiday.

Related: Juneteenth celebrations around the country mark the day enslaved Texans were finally told they are free 155 years ago

Today Juneteenth celebrations spread all across the country. Several institutions and museums like the Smithsonian have even sponsored Juneteenth activities.

Every June 19, thousands of Houstonians continue to visit Emancipation Park every year in the celebration commemorating the end of slavery in Texas.


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