Let’s talk Juneteenth, specifically the Juneteenth Sites in Houston and Galveston. Last year, Juneteenth became a federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved Africans. This nation continues to struggle with its original sin, the forced enslavement of Africans for over 200 years and the impact this undoubtedly has on the descendents. If you doubt this, just take a peek at the brutal backlash the NYT 1619 project received because they dared to say the systems which built this country on the backs of enslaved Africans may still exist in some form today. Considering that reconstruction never fully happened, Jim Crow DID in fact happen and folks lost their minds following Brown v. Board you’d think it would be logical.
I say all of this to say, we will not move forward if we continue to try to bury this history and push it off as if it was not long ago. Juneteenth offers us an opportunity to reflect on this history as it is the only national holiday directly tied to slavery. With this being a newly minted national holiday, people are still debating on how to celebrate it, even Black people. Will it include the commercialized items from America’s big box stores? Will it be a celebration of Black owned businesses or small family gatherings? Whatever you decide, my hope is that your celebration is truly a jubilee centered in pride in the resilience of our people. My other hope is, and this is the purpose of this blog post, is that whatever you do is rooted deeply in history. That we take the time to visit and honor the spaces in our community that were built as a bridge for us from our ancestors. Here are some historical sites in the Houston/Galveston area where you can do just that.
The story of Juneteenth starts in Galveston, Texas. On September 22, 1963 Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation with an effective date of January 1, 1863, freeing the enslaved people in the Confederate states while still in the throes of the Civil War. On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Courthouse, with members of the Western Confederate army surrendering in June, beginning the process of reconstruction. Soon, Union soldiers began making their way through Southern states announcing the emancipation of enslaved Africans. The troops arrived in Galveston on June 19, 1865 and marched through town reading Union General Gordon Granger’s Order Number 3.
Serving as the Confederate headquarters in Galveston during the Civil War, Ashton Villa is often cited as a location where troops read the General’s Order. Historians seem unsure whether the soldiers actually visited this site though. Still, it is the site of an annual reading on Juneteenth. A statue of State Rep Al Edwards, the legislator who pushed to make Juneteenth a state holiday, is also here.
With a congregation of enslaved people, Reedy Chapel was the perfect location to share the good news. Historians believe Union soldiers stopped here to read the General’s Order on June 19, 1865. The church still exists today and has more historical markers than I’ve ever seen on one building! Each year, Reedy Chapel hosts events commemorating Juneteenth.
Juneteenth Marker and Absolute Equality Mural
On the historic strand, you will two important Juneteenth markers. One, the historical marker detailing the story of Juneteenth in Galveston. Just behind that, the Absolute Equality Mural which visually depicts the story of Juneteenth. The Juneteenth Legacy Project also has an office in the building where the mural is.
Following emancipation, freed people began migrating further inland heading to Houston. The path they took is now being studied and will become Emancipation National Historic Trial, a 51 mile path starting at Reedy Chapel and landing in Houston’s Freedmen’s Town.
In 1872, four freedmen, including Reverend Jack Yates, pooled their money together to purchase a plot of land to host yearly Juneteenth celebrations. Today, the park is owned by the city which funded a 30 million dollar renovation a few years back. The park still hosts annual Juneteenth celebrations. This year’s celebration will include concerts on the 18th and 19th featuring the Isley Brothers, Sheila E and Frankie Beverly and Maze.
Freedmen’s Town – Houston
Today, parts of Freedmen’s Town are referred to as Midtown, but as you traverse through the area the mark left by the freed people is clear. There are historical markers at just about every corner documenting the churches the congregations or freed people formed after emancipation. I visited on a Sunday and found several of the churches thriving and holding services. Some churches like Bethel Church, founded by Reverend Jack Yates, held their last services some time ago. However, the city preserved Bethel Church after a fire making it a beautiful site to see in Freedmen’s Town.
When walking through the neighborhood, you will also find the homes of prominent African American Houstonians. There are six homes that are part of the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum and are currently being restored. During a recent visit I stopped by the J. Vance Lewis & Pauline Gray-Lewis home. J. Vance Lewis was born into slavery in Louisiana. He became an attorney after his emancipation and a prominent figure in the Freedmen’s Town.
The Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy Project is working to protect this historical area. They also offer tours and host events so be sure to check out their website and social media pages for more information.
Sam Houston Park
Located in Downtown Houston, Sam Houston Park is home to historical buildings that preservationists moved from the original locations to the park. For example, visitors can see the home of Jack Yates in this park although it was originally located in Fourth Ward. The park also has the Fourth Ward Cottage which gives visitors insights into the type of row houses that were common in Freedmen’s Town following emancipation.
The first African American cemetery within the Houston city limits, Olivewood Cemetery is the final resting place to many African American leaders. The grave of Reverend Elias Dibble, one of the leaders who purchased Emancipation Park is located here. With the timing of the creation of this cemetery, 1875, we know that many of those buried here were freed people who helped create and sustain the tradition of Juneteenth. There are efforts to learn more about the less famous people buried here as well as a local push to keep the cemetery maintained. As noted in a recent Houston Chronicle article, this area continues to flood putting the cemetery in constant danger.
College Park Cemetery
Another cemetery with prominent African Americans buried onsite is College Park Cemetery. Here, you will find the grave of Reverend Jack Yates. Like so many Black cemeteries around the country, it is need of funds and support to keep it maintained.
African American Library/Gregory School
Located in Freedmen’s Town, the Gregory School was the first school for freed people in Houston. The school operated in the community up until 1980. It remained vacant until 2008 when the city turned into the African American Library. Here, visitors can find collections highlighting African American history in Texas.
There are so many historical sites in both these cities that connect to the first free African Americans. It is a reminder of how these folks helped lay the groundwork for these cities as enslaved people and free people. It is also reminder for us to preserve, support and protect our history.
As you tell the story of Juneteenth, please be sure to add the element of Texas! Not because we are so obsessed with ourselves, but when you add that piece it opens the discussion of the overall emancipation process in this country which was not as simple as Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation.