Historic Galveston Island Serves as the Birthplace of Juneteenth

Galveston is steeped in history, and perhaps no better reminder can be found than with this weekend's emancipation festivities on the Island, the birthplace of Juneteenth. It seems hard to believe, especially in this day and age of immediacy in news, but the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 did not automatically result in freedom from slavery.

We checked in with Sharon B. Gillins, a member and trustee of Reedy Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Galveston, about the delays in receiving the news. “Texas did not get the news until June 1865. Different news got to different places at different times,” says Gillins, adding that only some slaves could read and write. “If it was announced in the paper, which it was, they might not have been able to read it. Even if plantation owners knew, I suspect they would not have been so willing to allow the information to be out.”

Gillins says that there are several theories about why it took so long for the news to spread to Texas. She says there are all kinds of stories, and there's probably a little bit of truth in all of them, ranging from planters withholding information, to messengers dying en route, to the fact that Texas was the last frontier. “The most plausible explanation is that the federal government had to go to various centers of economic trade and influence to let the news be known and also enforce it. There weren't a lot of battles here.” The last slaves in the South were freed on June 19, 1865 after the Emancipation Proclamation was read on a harbor pier in Galveston.

This year marks the 151st anniversary of Juneteenth, with a series of celebrations in Galveston including two parades, festivals, picnics, African-American heritage exhibits, concerts and much more.

At the core of the events, which take place June 17-19, is the annual march from the steps of the Old Galveston County Courthouse to the Reedy Chapel A.M.E. Church at 2015 Broadway, which was originally known as the Colored Church. The Buffalo Soldiers – who are celebrating their 150th anniversary in July of this year – always participate in the historic reenactment of the first documented celebration of emancipation in Galveston, starting off by reading General Order No. 3 on the steps of the courthouse. To honor those who have served our country, veterans also have been invited to march along this year.

Gillins says that it's only a three-block walk and, while it's usually held at 6 p.m., they've moved it to 11 a.m. this year because of Father's Day. Traditional African drums welcome the marchers on their way to the church celebration, which includes singing by the Galveston Heritage Chorale, reenactors and story quilts.

“I think it's very important for us to have festivities, but it's more important to make sure that our young people know why we're having these festivities,” says Gillins. “What does it mean? There are parades, picnics, barbecue, food and music at Reedy Chapel. We want to keep our history alive. But it's not just Reedy history, not just Galveston history. This is national history. I would like to see this stop being pigeon-holed as African-American history. It's American history.”

More than 20 events have been scheduled during the month of June in Galveston:
Galveston Crawfish Festival, June 17-19, Kermit Courville Stadium, 1207 27th Street. For information, visit gccrawfishfestival.com.
Al Edwards Emancipation Proclamation Reading and Prayer Breakfast, June 18, 8:30 a.m., Ashton Villa, 2328 Broadway.
Juneteenth parade, June 18 at noon, beginning at 26th and Winnie and ending at 41st and Ball.
Juneteenth parade, June 18 at 7 p.m., beginning at 20th and Strand and ending at 28th and Avenue Q, followed by a fireworks show.
Commemoration of the first known Juneteenth celebration, June 19 at 6 p.m., beginning at Old Galveston County Courthouse, 722 21st Street, and ending at Reedy Chapel A.M.E. Church, 2015 Broadway.

For more information, visit galveston.com/juneteenth.
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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney