Juneteenth is celebrated each year on June 19, honoring the day Union Gen. Gordon Granger came to Galveston to announce the liberation of enslaved people in Texas. This occurred in June of 1865, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation became official in 1863.
The same migration route taken by formerly enslaved people and others is being studied for designation as a national historic trail, known as the Emancipation Trail, after Congress approved an amendment to the National Trails System Act allowing for new historic trail designation in 2020.
When Granger arrived in Galveston, he issued five orders to its citizens, said Brett Derbes, director of research at the Texas State Historical Association. The third of the five mentions the abolition of slavery and is “very forward, very clear” from even the first sentence, Derbes said.
“It’s really enormous,” he said of the radical statewide changes that took place from that day on in Texas. “Just the sheer amount of change that occurred ... just changed the entire country in so many ways, and then this, this event in Texas—it’s taking off Reconstruction in Texas.”
News of the emancipation spread through the state primarily via word of mouth and telegraph as well as through newspapers. Granger, who spent six weeks informing others of the liberation of enslaved people, was considered a Civil War hero despite his commander Gen. Ulysses S. Grant considering him a loose cannon, Derbes said.
A 9-foot-tall statue of Granger is visible when driving along Broadway Avenue J, one of the city’s busiest streets, in the courtyard of the historic 1859 Ashton Villa event venue. The statue of Granger was brought to Galveston in the early 2000s, according to The Texas Tribune.
Everyone should know about this part of history, for their own education but also to celebrate the progress that has happened since, Derbes said.
“We need more people to understand what [Juneteenth] is and what it means to Texas,” he said.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, introduced legislation in January 2019 related to the study of the Emancipation Trail. It would begin near the Osterman Building and Reedy Chapel in Galveston and end in Houston’s Emancipation Park.
The park was first established when, after Granger’s announcement, Black people across Texas collected money to buy property dedicated to Juneteenth celebrations. A formerly enslaved Baptist minister led efforts to do so in Houston, purchasing the park’s land as home for his community’s celebration and naming it in honor of their freedom, according to the Houston Parks & Recreation Department website. ••Tommie Boudreaux, the African-American Committee chair of the Galveston Historical Foundation, said the traveling of formerly enslaved people from Galveston to Houston shows that they had the necessary skills “to do the things they wanted to do and live their lives in their own way.”
“Houston was a larger city, and they probably had more opportunities to get things done,” she said. “They demonstrated that they could be on their own.”
Having the trail recognized would add economic value for cities and towns along its path, providing a new historic site for visitors and making it an attraction, she said.
The trail would be one of just two in the country commemorating the migrations of former slaves, with the other being from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. There are 19 national historic trails already established in the United States, and a House of Representatives report notes the cost of the Emancipation Trail would not exceed $500,000 over the course of three years. The National Park Service is in the information gathering and public engagement phase; trail planning began in Oct. 2020, per NPS officials.
“From what I’ve read about [the other trail], it has really improved [things] economically in that area,” Boudreaux said.
Cornyn said he hopes the significance of the trail will one day live beyond history books.
“The significance of this path extends far beyond the elation [formerly enslaved people] felt on that day,” he said of Juneteenth and the trail. “It paints a picture of early beginnings of Houston, a strong African-American community that is, of course, now such an important part of ... this incredibly diverse and beautiful city, and it also represents the eternal struggle for equal rights, which continues to this day.”
Despite the fact Texas slaves were held for an additional two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Juneteenth is a happy day in the U.S., Jackson Lee said.
“We should explain to our neighbors, our friends, the diverse community, how devastating that was, but how strong we were,” she said. “Across the nation, they celebrate Juneteenth because it is a day of freedom and jubilee.”