Isle celebrates 150 years of emancipation
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, newly arrived in Galveston with his occupying army, circulated General Order No. 3 stating unequivocally “all slaves are free.” It was the last place in the former Confederacy to put emancipation into effect.
“Anyone who celebrates freedom should celebrate Juneteenth,” said Sam Collins III, a member of the committee for this year’s 150th Juneteenth festivities.
No social or individual transformation is easy, and none may have been more uneasy, or joyful, than the abrupt change many Texans experienced when they were suddenly declared free — men and women no longer someone else’s property. The old order was gone, and a new one had to be invented.
The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued fully a year-and-a-half before, but had no effect as long as Texas didn’t consider itself part of the United States, and the news of it had not been widely circulated here. The war had ended on April 9, 1865, but President Lincoln’s assassination less than a week later cast even greater uncertainty as to the conditions that would evolve in its aftermath.
In these circumstances, the order affirming and enforcing emancipation by an occupying general, with the weight of a victorious Union behind it, was met with understandable jubilation by the now formerly enslaved residents of Galveston.
The order was no doubt greeted with relief by most whites here as well, who with some certainty as to how things were going to be, could get back to business. And the prospects for business were good.
The port city of Galveston was uniquely positioned at the close of the Civil War to adapt and thrive after so profound a social upheaval. Though trade had been disrupted by the Union blockade, causing hunger and want, fortunes also had been made, and the demand for cotton was greater than ever.
In her book “Island of Color: Where Juneteenth Started,” Izola Collins, a music educator and one time president of the Galveston Independent School District’s board of trustees, writes: “As an international port in the latter 19th century, Galveston was the initiator, the source, the parent of much of civilization as it became known in the South.”
Galveston shared with all seaports a vibrant culture of the coming together of people from disparate, distant places — ambitious and hopeful people who were ready to do business in a new world. That sense of opportunity and possibility had largely — though not entirely — been denied the city’s African-American residents, but it was in the atmosphere they breathed, and with emancipation came the opportunity to share in it.
The city was diverse, and compact by the nature of its island geography. People of all stations and races and nationalities were in daily contact with one another, interacting and necessarily tolerant. Racism and xenophobia were not absent, of course, but with the sudden removal of the relationship of owner and enslaved, and the needs of business, it was held in check.
The color line remained firmly in place. Though not yet segregated geographically, there was little or no sense of social equality on the island. Just because they could no longer be bought and sold did not make African-Americans any less the “other” in most Southern white eyes. For the next 100 years, they must build and maintain their own parallel society.
Fortunately, there was already in place a structure of religious congregations that served to organize and bind together communities of the faithful. These included Reedy Chapel AME Church, which, if it was not the site of the first reading of Granger’s order, was the site of the first mass celebration of it by more than 800 people on Jan. 1, 1866. Taken together, these congregations formed the core of African-American social life in Galveston — one that fostered hope, uplift and education.
Galveston’s situation as a major seaport, with a vast and productive agricultural hinterland, led to another development. It became the home of the largest African-American industrial working class in the South. There was plenty of work along the docks, especially in loading cotton bales onto ships that would take it to British textile mills. Profit in this stage of the process depended on stuffing, or “jamming,” the maximum amount of cotton possible into each ship’s hold.
African-Americans were good at this, but it took the organizing efforts of Norris Wright Cuney, born of an enslaved mother and father who “owned” her, to create the Black Cottonjammers’ Union as an alternative to the white union, which was on strike. Cuney held out for equal pay with whites, and thereafter the two crews alternated loading ships.
The existence of a well-paid working class made possible the development of an African-American middle class, supporting business of every sort from barbers to funeral homes, as well as churches and schools, and generations of educators devoted to the highest standards of learning in the still-segregated schools.
This was the community in which Juneteenth became a yearly celebration. Doug Matthews, who grew up in Galveston and served as city manager for 11 years, remembers Juneteenth as a high point in family and community life when he was a child in the 1950s and ’60s.
“There were parades, barbecue, red soda water, parties in people’s yards and at Wright Cuney Park, and at the seawall,” Matthews said. “It was a family day.”
From Galveston, Juneteenth celebrations spread throughout the South, and with the second Great Migration to the World War ll industrial centers in the North and West, the holiday was carried throughout the nation.