Independence Day

Once a Texas-only holiday marking the end of slavery, Juneteenth is now celebrated nationwide with high spirits and hot barbecue.

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!’”

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