3 crucial facts to understand the history of Juneteenth

Last year, with the stroke of a pen, President Joe Biden signed into law the Juneteenth law as a national holiday. Some Americans were hearing the Juneteenth story for the first time. Others knew a very limited version of what happened in Galveston on June 19, 1865 – only that it celebrated the emancipation announcement. There’s a lot more to the story and it’s important that we tell a fuller story.

In November 2020, the Juneteenth Legacy Project was organized and formed a strategic partnership with the Nia Cultural Center, a longtime nonprofit organization in Galveston. One of the first goals of the partnership was to complete a 5,000 square foot mural highlighting the journey of freedom in Texas. Galveston residents and visitors to the island can use augmented reality to learn more about the story by scanning the mural using the Uncover Everything app.

With the help of Danny Asberry El, the historic landmarks of the Galveston Freedom Walk and the Juneteenth Mural were linked to videos. The videos create an outdoor classroom that expands the telling of Juneteenth’s story. Here are five examples of what you could learn:

1) United States Colored Troops were also known as the “Juneteenth Fathers of Freedom”. They predated the Buffalo Soldiers and were essential to Union victory in the Civil War. They were instrumental in spreading the message of freedom throughout Texas. In January 1866, General Philip Sheridan reported that he had 6,500 white soldiers in Texas and 19,768 black soldiers.

2) After the proclamation of “absolute equality” at the southwest corner of 22nd and Strand in Galveston, former slaves were allowed to legally marry and black men were allowed to register to vote and To stand for elections. In celebrating this expansion of voting rights, we must also fill in the history that so many of us have not learned – how the Reconstruction period began and ended, how Jim Crow laws and forced labor undid so many gains.

During Reconstruction, black legislators such as State Senators Matthew Gaines and George T. Ruby advocated for public education. Senator Gaines and Senator Ruby helped pass Senate Bill 276 in the early 1870s because they knew the importance of education. This led to the establishment of Prairie View A&M University and Texas A&M University in 1876.

3) Because of Juneteenth, a little black girl named Jessie McGuire, born in Galveston in 1892 and survivor of the storm of 1900, was born free and allowed to attend school. She eventually enrolled at Howard University and graduated in 1913. Thirty years later, in 1943, she won a lawsuit against the Galveston School District demanding equal pay for black teachers. She was a founding member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority formed in 1913 and a brave person who fought for equality throughout her life.

These stories and many more need to be told. Some fear that speaking or teaching about Juneteenth is only to discuss the dark chapter of slavery and abuse. Others worry that a celebration masks ongoing injustices. Let’s be clear: we have to face these two fears.

America is our home and we love living here. We should all share the responsibility of taking care of this house. Like many older historic structures, our American history is in need of renovation. The building’s foundation, wiring, plumbing and paint all need to be replaced. By adding new information and facts, we will extend the life and use of our home.

Imagine living in a house where there were no pictures of you and your family. How would you feel walking through the halls of the house seeing the images of others, but never seeing the images of yourself? As we strive to tell the truth about the contributions of people like Walter Moses Burton, the first elected black sheriff in Texas and the United States, we add images to the wall.

James Baldwin in his book “The Fire Next Time” states that “these innocent people” are “always trapped in a story they don’t understand; and until they do, they cannot be freed from it. In 2022 we are still trapped in this story.

The Nia Cultural Center and the Juneteenth Legacy Project in Galveston will help make Texas, America, and our world a better place. We are working to fix our American home so that future generations can live there without the problems of the past.

Our call to action is for the citizens of Texas and America to work together to tell not just the story of June 19, but the whole story of your community. Not just stories of pain and suffering, but stories of success and accomplishment of individuals who have been left out of the narrative of our Texas and US history books.

As we reimagine monuments and memorials in public spaces, it is high time to speak the truth. We are the United States of America and we should be included in the narrative of history. Our Juneteenth journey continues and our final destination is absolute equality for all.

Absolute equality is not about achieving equal results, but about creating an environment in which each individual can become their best without obstacles or barriers that stop them.

Sam Collins is a financial consultant, local historian and co-chair of the Juneteenth Legacy Project.

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