Over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed and two months after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Court House, the Juneteenth celebration began when Galveston first heard from the mouth of a Union official the news of the war’s end.
“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.”
The announcement quickly became an annual holiday among freed slaves, with the first “Jubilee Day” celebrations beginning the next year. Freedmen and women gathered in their finery for prayer, barbecue, parades, fishing, and rodeos. Juneteenth festivals gave occasion to the nascent musical traditions that would grow into America’s most distinctive genres: photographs show merrymakers posing with parlor guitars, clarinets, and basses. Flower-festooned horse buggies were common parade fixtures.
Communities of freed slaves eventually pooled their resources to buy land for the celebrations known as “emancipation grounds.” The first was a ten-acre purchase, made in 1872, that would become Emancipation Park in Houston. Mexia and Austin soon followed, with Austin’s Juneteenth committee purchasing its own Emancipation Park in the early 1900s before moving celebrations to East Austin’s Rosewood Park some time afterward.
Despite its spontaneous origins, Juneteenth blossomed and spread to other states as the 20th century rolled on. Louisiana was surprisingly late to recognize the holiday, officializing it after Oklahoma, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, and even Alaska. Congress recognized Juneteenth with a joint resolution in 1997.
Juneteenth holds a spot on the Texas public school curriculum and has endured as an important moment in Texas history.
Though 47 states recognized Juneteenth before Congress made it a federal holiday this week, it began on a summer day in Galveston a century and a half ago. After a pared-down celebration in 2020, Galveston will celebrate Juneteenth today with a parade, re-enactment, fireworks, and mural dedication.
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