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Galveston was home to the first Juneteenth. Here's how it'll celebrate this year

In this June 17, 2020, photo, a statue depicts a man holding the state law that made Juneteenth a state holiday in Galveston, Texas.
David J. Phillip
In this June 17, 2020, photo, a statue depicts a man holding the state law that made Juneteenth a state holiday in Galveston, Texas.

Americans will celebrate Juneteenth for the fourth year since it was recognized as a federal holiday in 2021. But for many families in Galveston, Texas, where the holiday originated, celebrations have been a mainstay for generations.

June 19th commemorates the fall of slavery in Galveston in 1865 — two years after the Emancipation Proclamation ordered the liberation of Black people held in the Confederacy.

“I have newspaper records of my great-grandfather — who was by this time, in 1885, he would have been 25 years old — and he was given the role of reading the Emancipation Proclamation at that celebration,” said 67-year-old Roy Collins.

Collins grew up in Galveston and said his family lineage in the city dates back to the end of the Civil War.

He says the holiday was always recognized and celebrated by Black people in the city for as far back as he can trace.

“I can remember my mother telling us stories about there being large gatherings in the city park and people would have roasted meats,” Collins recounts.

“My father and his friends were very creative with the barbecue experience. They would use meats that you could recognize, and they also had some meats that no one could recognize, and you just didn't want to ask too many questions about what that meat was,” he recalled with amusement.

“I just enjoyed the lightness of it.”

Joyful celebrations today

To celebrate this year — as it does most years — the island city will host a reading of General Order No. 3, which served to enforce freeing those still held in slavery; a historic march recreating the early freedom celebrations; and even a swanky Juneteenth gala that runs $400 a table.

Candace Reese is another Texan who considers Galveston her hometown.

Her grandfather, Rev. James B. Thomas, was instrumental in getting Juneteenth celebrated as a Texas state holiday in the 1970s.

“He was intentional about making sure that the young people were participants,” Reese said.

She recalled her grandfather standing on a street corner with a megaphone yelling: “Galveston's only known for two things: hurricanes and Juneteenth. Why don't you celebrate Juneteenth?”

A former Ms. Juneteenth, Reese — who was raised in Dallas — would travel to Galveston every summer for Juneteenth, marching and showing off dance moves in the parade.

Reese’s family's 180-year history in Galveston is long and storied. Her great-great-great grandfather was John Menard Thomas, once enslaved by Michel Menard, the co-founder of the city.

As part of the celebrations, a recent tradition for Reese and her family is a “freedom tour” of the island, including the historic Menard House, where her ancestors spent much of their lives enslaved.

The spirit of the holiday

Also key in Reese's honoring the holiday is supporting Black businesses on Juneteenth, and the 19th of every month.

“Juneteenth is about economic empowerment for those who are the descendants of those who were enslaved because there's so much ground still that each generation has to make up,” she said.

Torin Collins considers herself lucky to have grown up in a culture that celebrates Juneteenth. Her family owns a former Confederate plantation in the state, and every year, her father hosts a massive Juneteenth celebration to educate and connect the community.

“The nation is kind of playing catchup,” she said. “I was raised with the awareness of, like, how important Juneteenth is and how much we need to remember history, and where we started, and kind of that dark chapter that everyone tries to sweep under the rug,” she said.

Collins' favorite memories of Juneteenth growing up include reenactments of the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation and Frederick Douglass’ scathing oration “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" as the family grilled hot dogs and hamburgers on the land where Black people were once held in bondage.

Collins has since moved away from her hometown and has settled in Florida while she works on a graduate degree, but she said she carries the memories and the message of Galveston and Juneteenth with her always.

“I've lived abroad, I've lived all over the country. You know, no matter where I go, I'll carry that history and honor my ancestors, and honor their struggle for freedom and their participation in the struggle for freedom.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.