Their Emancipation, for Juneteenth 2014
June 19, 2014
When I moved to Texas in 1968,
I found that Texans had two* unique holidays:
The first was the Fat Stock Show and Rodeo.
On a given Friday in February,
Houston’s highways were closed to traffic
to make way for trail riders.
These were people who left their ranches
across the state, and traveled for up to two weeks,
in covered wagons, on old cattle-drive trails,
to Houston. On that day,
they flowed into the city and met at the Astrodome
to raise money for scholarships for ten days.
The other Texas holiday was Juneteenth.
In 1865, two months after the Civil War ended,
General Gordon Granger
and 2,000 armed US troops landed in Galveston
to enforce the two-and-a-half year old
You can visit Aston Villa, where he read the order.
But I didn’t have to go on pilgrimage
50 miles down I-45 to celebrate Juneteenth.
7 years after Galveston played the reluctant host
to General Granger and his friends,
Houston’s black community leaders pooled $800
and bought 10 acres of open land outside the city
as a place to celebrate Juneteenth every year.
was a short walk from my Houston apartment.
At the University of Houston,
I was personal assistant to the Director
of a new research center.
The collection of research laboratories
grew so quickly that the University decided
we needed a manager.
They hired a newly minted MBA for the job.
Summer at the center
was devoted to writing funding proposals.
In one of our first weekly staff meetings,
the new manager naively set several deadlines
for the end of the third week of June.
The staff members were polite.
They didn’t say anything.
But the new manager knew something was up.
We spoke in her office after the meeting.
“No one asked me for June 19th off,” she insisted.
“And they won’t,” I replied.
“But you should know when Juneteenth is,
just as you know
when Independence Day and Veterans’ Day are.
We’re in Texas. Juneteenth happened here.”
“But it’s not a real holiday,” she countered.
“Besides, this has nothing to do with you…”
“But it does,” I said. And I made two points:
When I was a little kid in school,
every month had a “construction paper” holiday:
First Day of Autumn, Halloween, Thanksgiving,
Washington and Lincoln’s Birthdays,
St. Valentine’s Day, Arbor Day, May Day,
Memorial Day, Flag Day;
and we’ve added others since then,
like Martin Luther King Day and Patriots Day.
From this, the little, 1950’s me was to learn that
what we are as humans, is all about memory.
Our humanity is about making something positive
from the good things and the bad things
that speckle our long history on this earth.
In the end, it is hardly relevant to our humanity
if the historical event actually happen to us:
if we were actually slaves in Egypt,
and have a right to celebrate Passover;
or if we were actually slaves
on cotton plantations in Civil War Era Texas,
and have a right to celebrate Juneteenth.
They are as much a part of our history
as they are anyone else’s;
so they are as much our holidays
as they are anyone else’s.
The Manager said,
“But it has nothing to do with you.
Why would you care?” And I told her:
“In terms of my humanity,
Who I Am is as black as he is white.
Their experience is our experience.
When they’re happy, we’re happy.
And their emancipation is as good as mine.”
In 1980, the Texas Legislature reluctantly
made Juneteenth a “partial staff holiday.”
Ten years later, the new manager of the center
experienced her first “partial staff holiday”—
except for her, the office was empty.
Here’s hoping she’s celebrating
her 25th Juneteenth this year—
with her entire staff.
* When I was delivering this at the Portsmouth Juneteenth Celebration, I realized that I omitted a third Texas holiday, San Jacinto Day, April 21. It commemorates the battle of San Jacinto between Texas and Mexico in 1836. Afterwards, Texas became an independent republic.