A visit to Galveston, the birthplace of Juneteenth

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The summer calendar has a new national holiday this year. A Texas born and raised celebration not everyone is familiar with as it was only one law signed last year by President Joe Biden.

To understand June 16th, one must visit Galveston, his birthplace.

General Gordon Granger of the Union Army arrived in Galveston in June 1865 with a force of more than 2,000 soldiers, many of them black. From his headquarters at what is now 22nd Street and Strand Street, he informed the people of Texas about Executive Order No. 3, which declared that all enslaved people in the Lone Star State, approximately 250,000, were now free.

It was two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the Appomattox Civil War ended. Texas was the last state to get the news.

“The people of Texas are informed that pursuant to a proclamation of the Executive Branch of the United States, all slaves are free,” states Order No. 3. “This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and property rights between former masters and slaves, and the connection which hitherto existed between them becomes that between employer and hired labourer.”

General Decree No. 3 printed in a newspaper. Courtesy of the Galveston Historical Foundation

“Black people on the island have chosen this date as their freedom date and have celebrated it annually for generations,” said Samuel Collins III, historian and tourist ambassador for Galveston. “As they left the island, crossed Texas and crossed the country, they took the June 16 celebrations with them.”

In 1980, Texas became the first state to make June 16 a public holiday. Eventually, 46 other states followed before it became a federal holiday.

“People, regardless of their race, want to live their lives without restrictions,” added Collins. “June 16 represents a spirit of renewal that celebrates freedom and opportunity.”

Collins foresees that June 16 will mark the beginning of what we as a nation will call “the season of liberty,” just as Thanksgiving marks the start of the holiday season. Freedom season, which culminates 15 days later on July 4th, Independence Day, allows Americans to celebrate our country’s continued evolution toward a more perfect union.

On the “sacred ground” where General Granger promulgated Executive Order No. 3 today is a huge mural – 126 feet long and 38 feet high – entitled “Absolute Equality.” Dedicated in 2021, the 5,000-square-foot mural was designed and built by Houston-based artist Reginald Adams — the largest of hundreds he has created over his 30-year career.

“I was really ignorant of Juneteenth until I started this project,” he said. “I just thought June 16th was the day enslaved people realized they had been emancipated, but there’s so much more to the story.”

Adams attempts to explain this story in six rings, each representing a part of the story of freedom for black Americans. From the first enslaved person to arrive in Texas in 1528 to the life of 95-year-old Opal Lee, the Fort Worth woman known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth‘, each ring moves on the way to freedom. Adams and his team of five artists painted QR codes on each ring that call up videos detailing the event being depicted. Some videos are two or three minutes long; some are up to 10 minutes.

Absolute Freedom at the corner of 22nd Street and Strand Street in Galveston. Courtesy of Reginald Adams

At the beginning of the mural on the left, Adams drew a map of the world as it appeared in the 15th century, when transatlantic exploration led to the African slave trade.

On the right, an astronaut stares into space. A nod to Texas’ role in space exploration, this image should inspire reflection on what freedom and equality will look like in the future.

Adams notes that he has an error in the largest of the rings, the one depicting General Granger signing Order #3.

“I later learned that Order No. 3 was actually signed by General William Emory in New Orleans,” Adams said. “Granger and his troops were responsible for reading the executive order aloud and enforcing it, but he never signed it.”

Absolute Equality is the first of five steps on the Galveston Freedom Walk that help explain this historical period. The tour begins at Pier 21 and Middle Passage, where a marker commemorates the enslaved Africans in Galveston in the 17th and 18th centuries. After a stop at Absolute Equality, the tour continues to the US Customs House, where the order was read; Reedy Chapel-AME Church, where a notice was posted; and Aston Villa, another place where the order was read aloud.

The building on which the mural appears houses the Juneteenth Legacy Project and the Nia Cultural Center (“nia” means “purpose” in Swahili).

A permanent collection of African art showcases the art, language and culture of the African peoples that existed before they were enslaved. Art auctions for young people are held there four times a year.

The center is currently hosting an emotional and thought-provoking exhibition of 60 works by Houston artist Ted Ellis, documenting the African American journey to freedom in Texas. Some of the works are brutally painful, yet accurate in their depiction of slavery in Texas; others are cheerful and hopeful.

Galveston is the first stop on the Emancipation Trail, which stretches 51 miles to Houston and marks the path some formerly enslaved people walked to share the news of their freedom. It currently includes 40 locations, ending in Freedmen’s Town in what is now Houston’s Third Ward.

The National Park Service is currently conducting a study to consider designation as a National Historic Trail. Texas Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee worked together to create and pass the Emancipation National Historic Trail Study Act

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