On June 19th, 1865, freedom came to Texas. Nearly two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, General Gordon Grainger, accompanied by almost 4,000 troops, arrived at the port of Galveston. At that time, because of the amount of human cargo that funneled through it, Galveston was the wealthiest city in Texas. Not long before, it had served as the capital of the Republic of Texas. When Grainger and his troops arrived, many of whom were black, they came to enforce a freedom that the inhabitants of Texas were already aware of.
The history books we read in school tell us that the troops came to spread the news of freedom, but the news was already widespread, whispered about on plantations, talked about in social clubs, known across the state.
Texas’ stance was not only to keep slaves, who were the economic engine of the region, but also to invite those from other states who wanted to keep their slaves in bondage to relocate to Texas. The historical record shows us that Texas’ support of slavery had been a key element in the Texas revolution, which allowed it to secede from Mexico and continue the forced enslavement of Black people. American chattel slavery was the stealing of a people; forced passage of a people; forced labor and physical exploitation of a people; physical brutality of a people; torture, rape, forced separation and death of a people.
This should be America’s biggest shame, but you can’t be ashamed of what you refuse to fully acknowledge.
I ask you to imagine this scene: the sound of a whip tearing through flesh, the sight of thorn pricked hands, the cries of mothers torn from babies, the anguished moans of fathers sold off, knowing they’d never see their families again. Only if you can feel, hear, taste, smell and touch this trauma can you understand the significance of Juneteenth — that on this day, those who had suffered under the hellish fate of bondage now had ownership over their own bodies and finally felt the freedom they so desired.
For as long as I can remember we’ve celebrated Juneteenth. Observing the day was our way of honoring our ancestors. Barbecues. Parades. Singing. Dancing. We celebrated with tears, laughter, joy, sometimes sadness remembering what those who came before us had endured. We honored them because we knew that if they hadn’t survived, hadn’t harnessed their God-given power to overcome, then we would have never walked into the promised land of freedom.
We could feel them with us, speaking to us, rejoicing alongside us, moving through us at the cookout as we stanky-legged, wobbled, cupid-shuffled, did the cha-cha slide, twerked, jerked, dougied. We harnessed the electrical current of liberation in our church services as we shouted, spoke in tongues, fell out in the spirit. As Baby Suggs, the holy woman in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, urged us to do, on that day we loved our flesh and our heart, for loving those parts as we saw fit was the true prize of freedom. This God-given right was what they truly desired, and it’s what we had inherited.
June 19th, 1865. Juneteenth. Jubilee day. Emancipation Day. Freedom Day. Black Independence Day. America’s newest federal holiday is a day to commemorate liberation, freedom and new beginnings for all those who suffered through the trauma of slavery. It’s also a day to remember so we don’t repeat. For those that descended from the enslaved, the slaveholder, or both, this is a day for us all to collectively strategize what true liberation is: a liberation where everyone, regardless of race, is truly free.
Ya’Ke Smith is a film professor and Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin. He wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.