by Valerie Wells | photos courtesy of Galveston CVB

Galveston is a city of firsts, from the state’s first black high school to the first African American world heavyweight champion. It is also the birthplace of Juneteenth, an important moment in American history when freeing slaves in Texas became a reality. Several landmarks just blocks apart on the island tell the story that began two months after the Civil War ended and more than two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

The pivotal event started in the city’s port when Major General Gordon Granger of the Union forces arrived in Galveston on June 19, 1865, with four transport ships carrying thousands of troops. U.S. soldiers took command of important buildings including city hall and the post office. The U.S. Army headquartered its command in the Osterman Building at the corner of The Strand and 22nd Street.
The building is gone. In its place, a historical marker posted in 2014 tells a story of how Granger read an order to the residents declaring all slaves were free. President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation to free slaves in 1863. Ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would not come until December 1865.

Juneteenth — an abbreviated nickname for June 19 — is the oldest commemorative event in the country celebrating the end of slavery. Part of the traditional belief is that slaves in Texas didn’t know they were free until Union soldiers told them so. But The Galveston Daily News reported stories before June 19, 1865, about plantations on the Brazos River where as many as two-thirds of slaves had left on their own. 

“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.”

The newspaper had reported on the Emancipation Proclamation, but it also reported stories about “escaped slaves.” The Galveston and Texas History Center at Rosenberg Library, 2310 Sealy St., has a copy of a bill of sale for a slave dated May 13, 1865. The purchaser bought the slave for $400.

In early June 1865, the newspaper ran many stories about the outcome of the war and questions about how emancipation would work. One doctor wrote a letter to the editor suggesting stretching out the emancipation process to five years would be a better idea.

Laura Smalley, who was born a slave in the 1850s in Hempstead not far from Houston, would not have agreed. Smalley talked to an interviewer in 1941 about being a young slave. In the interview that the Library of Congress has on file, Smalley described how her owner had been gone and she had thought maybe he died, but one day he came back from fighting in the conflict.

“We all got up and went to the house to hear the old master,” Smalley said. “The old master didn’t tell us we were free.” 

It would be months later before they knew, Smalley said. In the interview, she said they found out on June 19, 1865.

“That’s why we celebrate that day,” Smalley said.

Samuel Collins III, a Galveston County financial adviser, has worked for years to raise awareness of African American history in Texas. It’s important for children to know this history, he said.

“Juneteenth celebrates the evolution of our country to a more perfect union,” Collins said.

Annual celebrations of the Emancipation Proclamation began in Galveston and throughout the Greater Houston area. In 1866, freed slaves marched from the Galveston County Courthouse, 722 21st St., to Reedy Chapel AME African Methodist Episcopal Church, 2013 Broadway. Once they were at the church, the director of the Freedman’s Bureau read the Proclamation, according to the Galveston Historical Society.

Every year, churches and community groups have dinners, guest speakers and music to celebrate Juneteenth.

At Ashton Villa, 2328 Broadway, an annual re-enactment of Granger reading the order to free the slaves takes place on a balcony overlooking the crowd. In 2006, state and city officials added a bronze statue of Granger on the grounds.

The annual reading became a Galveston tradition, but it has caused confusion about where the actual reading took place. Some people now assume it happened at Ashton Villa, a private home that during the Civil War served as a Confederate post. It’s not just unclear where the reading took place — it’s also doubtful if a reading ever really happened at all on June 19, 1865. Granger soon left Galveston for Houston. It’s possible that the orders were circulated and not read in public.

But these questions don’t change the bigger message of freedom, Collins said. Freedom allowed local heroes to do great things and inspire the next generation, he said. Collins gave two examples of Galveston natives who couldn’t have accomplished what they did if Juneteenth hadn’t happened: Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion boxer, and Jesse McGuire-Dent, one of the founders of the national Delta Sigma Theta sorority.