When many Americans think about the abolition of slavery in the United States, they think of the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863; however, for enslaved people living in the Confederacy at the time, this declaration did not grant them freedom. In Texas, it was almost two and half years later that enslaved people gained freedom upon the defeat of the Confederacy in the spring of 1865 at the end of the Civil War. On June 19, 1865 Major General Gordon Granger from the Union Army arrived in Galveston and proclaimed that all enslaved people in Texas would henceforth be free individuals. This date became known as Juneteenth and has been celebrated ever since with festivals, parades, picnics, and other celebrations throughout Texas, the South, and even the rest of the United States.
Despite the proclamation of freedom made on June 19th by Major General Granger, he did note that “The freed are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages…they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” This addendum provided a preview of the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws that came to reign in Texas and the rest of the South that sought to control and restrict the lives of African-Americans after Reconstruction.
After Reconstruction, states in the south passed a number of vagrancy laws that “allowed local courts to arrest individuals deemed idle, to fine them, and force them to work if they could not pay the fines.” These policies created a large increase in the number of imprisoned African-Americans, many of whom were leased out to work on former plantations with the prisons using their wages to run the system. Eventually, as plantation owners died or sold their plantations, a number of these properties were purchased by the state as the site of state prisons and farms (many of which are still in existence today in southeast Texas, including the Jester, Wayne Scott, Clemens, and Darrington units) to create a self-sufficient prison system where prisoners lived and worked in often brutal conditions to grow crops and raise livestock to feed the prison system. In addition to the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans during the 20th century in Texas, Jim Crow laws and policies such as segregation, voter suppression, and “red lining,” along with terrorism by white supremacist organizations, continued to make Texas a hostile and oppressive place for African-Americans to live. Redlining and segregation, the effects of which are still in place today, forced African-Americans to live in undesirable neighborhoods and did not allow them access to credit, thus inhibiting wealth-building. Additionally, these neighborhoods were underserved in terms of transportation, adequate housing, education, healthcare, food, and recreation, and were often near environmentally-hazardous industries. You can learn more about this policy and see maps of the different redlining policies from many Texas cities by clicking here.
Despite the successes of the Civil Rights’ movement of the 50s and 60s at ending state-sponsored segregation and expanding voting rights, challenges still remain. You might hear people claiming that we just need to “get over it” or leave “history in the past” or “that happened before I was born.” We at Achieving Together acknowledge that as the author William Faulker wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” and that past inequities have not been resolved and continue to negatively affect the African-American community in Texas. Issues such as over-policing of neighborhoods and police brutality along with the War on Drugs/Crime and the school to prison pipeline, health disparities, continued institutional and personal discrimination, and the lack of educational and work opportunities have led to inequities that have created the current environment which have seen Americans across the country of all races in the streets protesting and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Achieving Together recognizes that these inequities persist today and negatively affect the health outcomes of African-Americans in Texas; therefore, the guiding principles, the goals, and the focus areas of the Achieving Together Plan to end HIV in Texas support the elimination of barriers to equity and equality. You can read more about these different aspects of the plan here: https://achievingtogethertx.org/achieving-together-plan/. Achieving Together emphasizes our commitment to equity and our need to engage in the difficult work to end racism and fight for an equitable world for all Texans.
Despite these obstacles and challenges throughout history, Juneteenth celebrations have continued in earnest and June 19th was declared an official state holiday in Texas in 1979 by Governor Clements. Presently, many Texas communities celebrate with festivals, parades, picnics, marching band competitions, and other celebrations of African-American culture in Texas. A quick internet search will reveal many Juneteenth plans in your area.
We’d like to offer up this Audre Lorde quote as a reflection on how we can all celebrate Juneteenth this year and stand together to fight inequity past, present, and future. “You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongside each other. I do not have to be you to recognize that our wars are the same. What we must do is commit ourselves to some future that can include each other and to work toward that future with the particular strengths of our individual identities. And in order for us to do this, we must allow each other our differences at the same time as we recognize our sameness.” Finally, in closing, we’d like to share our fellow Texan, Beyoncé, singing a traditional Juneteenth hymn, also known as the “Black National Anthem,” Lift Every Voice during her historic Coachella 2018 Homecoming performance here: