June 18, 1865 dawned much like every other morning had for the folks on the Island of Galveston, TX. No doubt quiet whispers of the Emancipation Proclamation had been circling since the day Lincoln issued it in 1863 but nothing had changed here. Texas did not see itself as part of the United States and, therefore, did not feel the need to comply with the freedom of slaves.
Most of the 250,000 slaves in Texas at this time had moved there from other states when their owners moved west to escape the fighting during the Civil War. A few came through domestic slave trade and fewer still came through illegal African trade, but most had moved in from the deep South. By 1860, the average price for a slave in Texas was $800, though the best field hands could bring $1200 and blacksmiths were valued at $2000. Sugar and cotton production had grown by leaps and bounds, as a result of these slaves and the economy was booming.
But the army rolled in with the heat that day. Union Army General, Gordan Granger, arrived on the island with a troop of 2000 Federal Soldiers. The next day, June 19, he read the General Order No. 3 which stated:
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.
This day became known and celebrated as Juneteenth.
Upon hearing the news, many slaves left the region. However, over the next seven years, a group of African Americans located across the state of Texas collected and saved money to purchase a piece of ground they would then dedicate to the celebration of Juneteenth. In 1872, they purchased ten acres of open land and named it Emancipation Park. This park can still be found today in Houston’s Third Ward.
153 years have passed. While I believe with all my heart that Juneteenth is worth celebrating, I also know down deep in the basement of my soul, that the fight is not over yet. “Absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property” floats through my mind like a living, breathing, ancient mantra. It’s the way things should be. The way things are meant to be. Yet, too many people are still living as if it were June 18, because, let’s be honest for minute, if the stripping away of personal rights of another human being makes us safer, wealthier, more powerful, we tend to forget about the person behind those stripped rights.
If we really lived this, we wouldn’t have more black prisoners than white, neighborhoods wouldn’t be still largely segregated, mothers at the borders would not have their babies taken from them, Native Americans would not be relegated to small corners of this wide land without so many basic rights and blood would stop spilling on our sidewalks.
White people, June 18 is over. What is it that we are grasping to hold on to? When we choose to believe in absolute equality, we find something so much better than safety, wealth and power. Push yourself into June 19 and discover the freedom that comes from living life as it was meant to be…a beautiful, colorful community.