By Terrance Turner
On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers led by General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, TX, with some news. “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” Granger read, quoting General Order Number 3. (That order was found yesterday, by staff at the U.S. National Archives. The photo is shown above.) The “Executive”, President Abraham Lincoln, had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863 — two and a half years earlier. But the news didn’t reach the slaves until 1865, for reasons that are still unclear. (In December of that year, the 13th Amendment was passed, outlawing non-penal slavery nationwide.)
The slaves reacted with shock and jubilation to the announcement, according to Juneteenth.com. Many of them moved to Houston; the city’s black population more than tripled, per documents in the Library of Congress. One of those freed slaves was Jack Yates, who moved to Houston within days. According to ABC 13 Houston, Yates came to Houston and worked hauling freight. He became a Baptist preacher. He was the first pastor of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church — Houston’s first black Baptist church. In 1872, he and three other men bought several acres of land for Emancipation Park, on what was then Dowling Street. (It is now Emancipation Avenue.) The four men bought the park so that they (and other black people) could celebrate Juneteenth.
Rep. Al Edwards authored a bill to make Juneteenth a state holiday in 1979. Surprisingly, Texas Monthly reports that Edwards met with resistance from fellow blacks in his quest to make Juneteenth a holiday. One state representative, Clay Smothers of Dallas, dismissed Edwards’ bill as proposing nothing more than “ceremoniously grinning and bursting watermelons on the Capitol grounds.”
Despite the resistance, Edwards persisted, and House Bill 1016 was passed by the Texas Legislature, making Texas the first state to officially commemorate Juneteenth. (Now every state recognizes the holiday except Hawaii and North Dakota.) Juneteenth became an official state holiday on Jan. 1, 1980. Now, 40 years later, there is a growing movement to make it a national holiday. That push has gained steam after a string of police killings (most notably George Floyd) and the death of Edwards from natural causes in April. He was 83.