Galveston County Daily News
(Galveston, TX) - As a boy, the Rev. Ronald Myers attended elaborate Juneteenth block parties complete with guest speakers, music and lots of food.
Oddly enough, Myers didn’t grow up in Texas — the birthplace of the Juneteenth celebration commemorating June 19, 1865, when Texas slaves were told they were free.
Myers grew up in Milwaukee, Wis. — 1,200 miles away from Galveston, where the announcement was first made two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. And yet, Juneteenth remained an important celebration in Myers’ family and community.
In 1999, Myers began his National Juneteenth Holiday campaign, urging state officials and the president to recognize the holiday Myers calls the United States’ “Second Independence Day.”
Today, 25 states recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or observance, Myers said. He continues to petition President George W. Bush to recognize Juneteenth Independence Day as a special day, like Flag Day. Myers said he and others have sent thousands of petitions to the White House, but have heard no response from Bush.
“Juneteenth is the recognition of slavery and the healing from slavery,” Myers said. “There’s a need for us to move forward … This is the most constructive and positive way for us to deal with it.”
Although Myers has yet to accomplish his goal of a national holiday, Juneteenth festivals today can be found across the country, from New York to Colorado to Iowa, all the way to Anchorage, Alaska.
Several organizations and Web sites are dedicated to spreading information about Juneteenth celebrations — where to find them, what to do and how to celebrate in the workplace, community or at home.
Local celebration organizers are taking advantage of the national attention. Posters advertising area festivities encourage residents to “Come on home where it all began.”
“This is where it all started,” said James Steadham who played Henry “Box” Brown in the Galveston Historical Foundation’s depiction of the Underground Railroad.
On June 19, 1865, U.S. Maj. Gen Gordon Granger marched into Galveston at the head of 2,000 Union soldiers. When he did, he issued General Order No. 3 informing Texans that President Lincoln had freed the slaves Jan. 1, 1863.
Reactions among the freed slaves ranged from shock to jubilation, according to Juneteenth.com. Some stayed at the plantations and became paid workers of their former slave masters, said retired College of the Mainland history professor Alex Pratt.
Others left immediately and headed north, June 19, the date of their freedom, permanently etched on their minds, Pratt said. The first Juneteenth celebrations sprang from these freed slaves and ex-Texans.
“It put us ethnically on the map,” Pratt said.
For Samuel Collins III of Hitchcock, Juneteenth represents the evolution of the United States, the beginning of the idea that all Americans have an equal opportunity to get an education and pursue dreams and goals.
“It’s easy to take the chains off the body, but it’s harder to take the chains off the mind,” he said.
Collins and his wife Doris opened their historic Hitchcock home — the 19th century H.M. Stringfellow Place named after the Confederate soldier turned world famous horticulturist — for their second Juneteenth celebration this year.
Hundreds came out for hot dogs and entertainment, and Collins hopes that his celebration grows larger in the coming years.
“All of us can benefit from what Juneteenth represents,” he said. “We are only as strong as the weakest link in the chain of the community.”
National Juneteenth festivals reflect the country’s move toward multiculturalism, Pratt said. As more Americans celebrate their own individual heritages, the United States moves away from its “melting pot” culture to more of a “salad bowl” culture, full of a variety of different perspectives, ethnicities, histories, heritages and celebrations, Pratt said.
“And we’re better for it,” he said.
Juneteenth will be celebrated in Galveston on Tuesday morning with the annual Emancipation Proclamation Reading and Prayer Breakfast at 8:30 a.m. at Ashton Villa, 2300 Broadway. The reading will be followed by a parade and picnic at New Wright Cuney Park, 41st and Ball streets.