Once a Texas-only holiday marking the end of slavery, Juneteenth is now celebrated nationwide with high spirits and hot barbecue.
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The greatest Texas export of the late twentieth century isn’t Dell computers, Willie Nelson’s music, or fajitas. It’s the celebration of Juneteenth. Once a rural folk holiday specific to the state, Juneteenth—shorthand for “June nineteenth,” the date in 1865 that African Americans in Texas learned of their emancipation from slavery—has become an international phenomenon, thanks to a catchy name and the boosterism of expatriate Texans. In hundreds of cities across the nation—and even a few other countries—June 19 is embraced with music, picnics, and parades. The Smithsonian Institution first commemorated Juneteenth ten years ago. Twelve states have passed or are considering legislation to make Juneteenth an official holiday—which Texas did first, in 1979—and activists are petitioning President George W. Bush to make it a federally recognized day as well. The Civil War had been over for two months when 1,800 U.S. troops landed in Galveston in June 1865 and placed the city under martial law. Agog at the sea of blue-clad soldiers, the defeated Confederates and their black servants gathered to hear General Gordon Granger read military orders declaring “absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.” The whites in the crowd showed little or no reaction; after all, they had known about Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation for two and a half years, since the president had issued it on January 1, 1863. But the black listeners, from whom the news had long been withheld, were jubilant: “We all walked down the road singing and shouting to beat the band,” recalled one Texas freedwoman, Molly Harrell, in The Slave Narratives of Texas, a book based on a thirties-era federal oral-history project. Said another, Lou Smith: “I ran off and hid in the plum orchard and said over ‘n’ over, ‘I’se free, I’se free; I ain’t never going back to Miss Jo.'” Many freed slaves immediately left home, in what became known as “the scatter,” to find long-lost family members or to settle in the friendlier North.
But the glee quickly faded as most black Texans realized that, essentially, they were still enslaved. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote that his people were free but “without roofs to cover them, or bread to eat, or land to cultivate.” In the first chaotic months, the government agency charged with establishing a social structure for the former slaves, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedman’s Bureau, for short), began to set up jobs, schools, and even—as early as 1867—an organized Juneteenth party in Austin to mark the second anniversary of the liberation.
But in the hell that was early Reconstruction, white troublemakers interpreted such a gathering as a taunt. A particular problem was a newly active group with the mysterious moniker “Ku Klux Klan.” Major General Joseph Reynolds, the military commander of Reconstruction Texas, noted in an 1868 report to his Washington superiors, “In some counties the civil officers are all, or a portion of them, members of the Klan. . . . The murder of Negroes is so common as to render it impossible to keep an accurate account of them.” One historian listed various reasons Anglo Texans gave to justify killings: “Freedman did not remove his hat when he passed him (a white man); negro would not allow himself to be whipped; freedman would not allow his wife to be whipped by a white man; he was carrying a letter to a Freedman’s Bureau official; kill negroes to see them kick; wanted to thin out niggers a little; didn’t hand over his money quick enough; wouldn’t give up his whiskey flask.”
The cruelty backfired. The harder whites tried to terrorize them, the more determinedly freedmen clung to one unassailable truth: They were free, legally and morally, and a big Juneteenth splash every year was one way to peacefully bring the point home. In an attempt to avoid violence, many churches—the only black organizations that historically had been tolerated—began to raise funds to buy their own land. By 1872 Baptist minister Jack Yates and Methodist minister Elias Dibble had amassed $1,000 in pennies, nickels, and dimes from their Houston congregations to acquire a ten-acre tract at the intersection of Elgin and Dowling streets, an area then on the edge of town. The land, now just south of downtown, became Emancipation Park, which is still used for Juneteenth events today.
Given the church’s influence, early Juneteenth observances featured much sermonizing and hymn singing. The preacher would read the text of the Emancipation Proclamation, and attendees would take turns relating their own recollections of the first Juneteenth or, as time wore on, their ancestors’. Dressing up was important, not only because it was a holiday but also because most blacks, while slaves, had worn little more than rags. And the outpouring of thanksgiving inevitably involved food, lots of food. The main course was—and still is—barbecue. (Houston singer-songwriter Lightin’ Hopkins, who died in 1982, called Juneteenth “Barbecue Day.”) In small towns all over the state, whole cows, pigs, or goats were roasted over a fire pit dug in the ground, a method of preparation straight from Africa. The favored drink was red soda water, sometimes referred to as strawberry soda; today many Texans both black and white prefer the soft drink Big Red with their barbecue. Other amusements included baseball games, rodeos, fishing, and family reunions. The musical offerings soon moved beyond the standard summer harmonies of gospel and locusts; for example, on June 19, 1937, tap-dance star Bill “Bojangles” Robinson headlined a Dallas gathering. Jazz, the blues, and other sounds quickly dominated the bill, and today some of the state’s best music festivals take place on Juneteenth, notably at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston.
Gradually Juneteenth developed different urban and rural personalities. In Houston, Dallas, and other cities, the high point of the festivities was often a lengthy parade with elaborate floats. While city events focused on nonstop entertainment, small-town shindigs remained family- and church-oriented. Regardless of location, though, violence from both whites and blacks often plagued Juneteenth. In My Remembers, Eddie Stimpson, Jr., a sharecropper in then-rural Plano during the Depression, recalled how “there were all way a lot of fun at the June Teenth until some of the suppose to be city slick party goers drop in half drunk and try to start trouble.” In 1943 officials in Beaumont canceled Juneteenth—as well as bus service, military leave, and liquor sales—because of race riots earlier in the week that had caused three deaths. And as recently as 1981, three teens perished at the venerable Juneteenth blowout at Comanche Crossing near Mexia. Arrested for possession of marijuana, the young men were loaded into a boat by sheriff’s deputies for transport to Lake Mexia’s opposite shore. For reasons that are still disputed, the boat capsized. The three prisoners drowned; the lawmen swam to safety.
At various times in the twentieth century, notably during both world wars, organized observances of Juneteenth were intermittent but always attracted throngs. In Dallas a 1936 gala (then called Colored People’s Day) at the state fairgrounds drew 200,000 visitors. Because segregation was a long-established policy, Juneteenth was often the only day blacks could enter many attractions; in Fort Worth, for example, they could visit the botanical gardens only on June 19. White merchants, however, cheerfully capitalized on the commercial opportunities. During the thirties, Foley’s offered a special sale on “silk frocks” for the big day, Mrs. Baird’s claimed its bread “goes mighty fine with barbecue,” and railroads offered special rates for day trips.
With the rise of the civil rights movement in the sixties, Juneteenth faltered. Texas activists were focused on equality and unity, two goals that seemed incompatible with a party that harked all the way back to the age of slavery. But by the late seventies, Juneteenth gained renewed popularity as African Americans began rediscovering their cultural heritage. Politicians in particular saw endless possibilities. Dallas’ first African American county commissioner, John Wiley Price, was instrumental in establishing his city’s annual extravaganza in 1977. In 1992 Jesse Jackson chose June 19 for his Day of Absence, a sick-out to protest the acquittals of the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King. But Mr. Juneteenth is Al Edwards of Houston. As a freshman state representative in 1979, Edwards ardently championed House Bill 1016, which made Juneteenth a state holiday. “It is right,” Edwards asserted, “that we joyfully celebrate the demise of the ‘Peculiar Institution’ with picnics, music, conferences, and thanksgiving to God.”
Surprisingly, Edwards met resistance from fellow blacks in his quest to make Juneteenth a holiday. Another state representative, Clay Smothers of Dallas, dismissed Edwards’ bill as proposing nothing more than “ceremoniously grinning and bursting watermelons on the Capitol grounds.” Celebrating Juneteenth, Smothers felt, was celebrating “a fraudulent holiday.” That position was not unheard-of among African Americans: After all, the real Emancipation Day was January 1, 1863, not the day two and a half years later when, as Essence magazine once put it, “Texans were the last to know.”
Detractors and drama aside, the fact is that today, 136 years after General Granger informed Texas slaves that they were free, their descendants are still struggling for full equality. The point of celebrating Juneteenth isn’t when the slaves heard or who kept them from hearing; the point is that it’s impossible not to feel a little thrill when you imagine the elation that first Juneteenth must have produced. Austin writer Amelia Barr recorded the reaction of her slave Harriet: She “darted to her child, and throwing it high, shrieked hysterically, ‘Tamar, you are free! You are free, Tamar!'”