Freedom in Progress: A Brief History of Juneteenth

The weeklong celebration commemorating the end of slavery kicks off this month in Emancipation Park.

By Michael Hardy May 31, 2015 Published in the June 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Shutterstock

Exactly 150 years ago, on June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger landed on Galveston Island with 2,000 federal troops and issued General Order No. 3: “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 proclamation Granger referred to was, of course, the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Lincoln had signed two and a half years earlier but which had been impossible to enforce until the end of the Civil War. 

At the time of the order, there were approximately 250,000 slaves in Texas. Over the following years many of them left rural plantations for rapidly growing urban areas like Houston, Austin and San Antonio, where they continued holding annual celebrations every year on June 19—Juneteenth, as it became known. In 1872, a group of African American ministers in Houston helped raise money from the community to purchase a 10-acre plot of land in the Third Ward, which they named Emancipation Park. It has served as the cultural center of the city’s African American community, and the site of Juneteenth celebrations, ever since.

“Blacks would come from all over,” said singer Kijana Wiseman, the chair of this month’s celebration. “People would dress up in their finery, they would dance, there were bands and music. It was a real gala affair.” 

Interestingly, this will be the first year since 1872 that Juneteenth won’t be held at Emancipation Park. That’s because it’s in the midst of an ambitious $33 million renovation that will make it one of the city’s premier public spaces, on par with Discovery Green or Market Square Park; tony townhome developments are already sprouting up around the periphery, and many local residents are ambivalent about the gentrification the construction seems to auger. “There are many, many poor people who still live around that area,” Wiseman said. “Now, with the renovation, it’s attracting more developers and people coming in and changing the neighborhood’s character.” 

This year’s sesquicentennial Juneteenth celebration kicks off on June 13 with the annual Miss Juneteenth Pageant and concludes a week later with a parade that starts at Texas Southern University and ends at Project Row Houses. In between will be a children’s tea party, a movie night and a talent show, as well as a free legal clinic, a genealogy workshop and a panel discussion about the recent string of police shootings of black men across the country. These programs hearken back to the first Juneteenth celebrations, which provided newly freed slaves with opportunities for self-education. 

“They had all kinds of instructional activities to tell people how to become freedmen,” said Dorris Ellis, president of the Friends of Emancipation Park. “They had no knowledge of how to navigate their new world, because they had been enslaved. And, in a way, we’re still learning how to navigate this world.”

JuneTeenth Festival June 13–20; parade June 20 from 10–11am. Free. Multiple locations. juneteenthfest.com

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