By June 19, 1865, the Civil War was over. Lincoln had been assassinated. Texas had surrendered to Union troops weeks before. A Union General, from army headquarters in Galveston, in a building on the Strand, issued General Order No. 3. It proclaimed “in accordance with a proclamation from the executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
Few words in American history have thundered more loudly across time and our land. Thunderbolts of freedom reached thousands of enslaved Americans who were now free to leave the plantations that had been their prisons.
They were called “freedmen.” Many traveled along the old San Felipe Road, or across other paths and roads, to resettle in Houston, at a place called “Freedmen’s Town.” The freedmen built new lives for their families. Many found work as blacksmiths, barbers, cobblers, and tailors, among other crafts. One of them, Jack Yates, became a preacher. The freedmen built a new church, the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, the first of its kind in the city. They also endured countless acts of discrimination and abuse.
They knew what freedom meant — for them and for their descendants. On June 19 of 1866, the first anniversary of Emancipation Day (as it was known then), the Houston freedmen, showing unimaginable powers of forgiveness and love, gave a banquet and invited all of their former owners as guests of honor.
Remember the freedmen.
Annual celebrations of this day continued. In 1872, this same community founded the oldest park in Texas, called Emancipation Park, so that there would be a special place to remember Juneteenth. Every year, the community celebrated that special day. Over time, Juneteenth became a state holiday, a national celebration.
Remember the freedmen.
The struggle for freedom, equality, and economic opportunity continues to this day. We have work to do — to heal hurt, bridge economic and social chasms, make justice a reality for all, to lift all communities, raise all children. With our future labors in mind, let us pause today to celebrate that special day, Juneteenth.
And remember the freedmen.
President, Houston Bar Association
Photo caption: The Rev. Jack Yates and members of the community in an early celebration of Juneteenth in Emancipation Park. Photo: Houston Metropolitan Research Center.