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Black Texans

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Timeline of Texas History
Juneteenth dedication of the Freedman's Memorial in Dallas. Photo by Courtney Perry.

 

The holiday of Juneteenth, which is an abbreviated form of "June Nineteenth," marks the day blacks in Texas received word that President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had freed the nation's slaves. So far, however, only Texas acknowledges June 19 (also called Emancipation Day) as an official state holiday.

Juneteenth 1900
A gathering for Juneteenth in 1900. Austin Public Library.

Juneteenth commemorates the date in 1865 when Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived with his troops at Galveston Island and read President Lincoln's proclamation, freeing the state's 200,000 slaves. The proclamation had originally taken effect on Jan. 1, 1863, but word didn't reach Texas until two months after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, and more than two years after the proclamation was issued. Explanations for the delay have varied. Depending on who's doing the explaining, the delay could be attributed to anything from bureaucratic delays to a slow mule.

Once freed, several self-sustaining black farming communities grew up in areas where now free men tilled their own soil. One such community was Peyton Colony, about 40 miles southwest of Austin. At the height of the settlement, Peyton Colony is said to have encompassed more than 5,000 acres.

Although former slaves from Bastrop and Caldwell counties gravitated to the area, others came from other parts of the country to set up homesteads. Some originally claimed 160-acre tracts. But in the 1920s the community fell on hard times and never completely recovered. At the height of the "good old days," the day was observed with a big barbecue that included softball games and a bit of showmanship on the part of the men.

Among the customary festivities of music, dining and dancing, were a range of riding events. In one, a man would race on horseback to a point where a woman was seated on a wagon. He would then hand the woman a needle, she would thread it, hand it back and he would race back to the starting point. In another contest, a man would race to a wagon, grab a cigar, light it and race back to the starting point. Those activities have fallen by the wayside, as have the communities that spawned them.

Over the years, Peyton Colony – along with Clarksville in Austin, St. John Colony in Caldwell County, Comanche Crossing in Limestone County and the West Village Road Section of Salado in Bell County – became freedmen's settlements with historical designations. In fact, By 1898, the Comanche Crossing colony formed the 19th of June Organization and bought 30 acres as permanent grounds for the celebration, making it one of the state's biggest observances.

(In 1981, three young black men, who became known as the Comanche Three, drowned when police officers arrested them for possession of marijuana at the Juneteenth celebration and attempted to take them across a lake in an overcrowded boat. The police officers swam to safety. Controversy arose over allegations that the three drowned because they were handcuffed, although police denied it.)

But as families grew and employment opportunities arose in the cities, populations began to shrink. The old timers died off and many young people moved away, seeking livelihoods elsewhere. And although several old communities still have major Juneteenth celebrations, they are more structured. And increasingly, as the holiday becomes more of a focal point for promoting a cultural heritage, they have become integrated.

At the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Juneteenth lost favor, particularly with more militant blacks who perceived it as anachronistic to the goals of the movement. Some argued that Juneteenth was not a cause for celebration inasmuch as it symbolized the fact that Texas blacks had remained enslaved after the rest of the South had been freed.

Then, in the 1970s, as black Americans embraced the notion of black pride, there was a revival of interest in Juneteenth. Originally observed almost exclusively as a Southern holiday in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas and neighboring Oklahoma, in recent years Juneteenth has become popular in other parts of the country.

For example, the Smithsonian Institution's Anacostia Museum in Washington, D.C., has initiated an annual celebration centered in Juneteenth. The focus of the event is a recounting of Afro-American culture. It includes such traditional activities as a community barbecue, music, poetry reading and games, but it also features storytelling and reenactments of battles fought by the all-black 54th Regiment that fought with the Union in the Civil War.

The holiday has also been observed in cities and states as diverse as Los Angeles, Calif.; Hartford, Conn.; Rochester, N.Y.; Milwaukee, Wis.; and Cherokee, N.C. South Carolina even has a Juneteenth society.

Traditionally observed as an occasion for celebration – including picnics and parades in some parts of the state – in recent years Juneteenth has also become an occasion for reflection, a time to recognize achievements in such diverse areas as literature, music, art and economic development. Some have even equated the holiday with having the same importance among Afro-Americans as Cinco de Mayo has among Latinos.

 

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

When Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday became a national holiday in 1986, that tribute to the slain civil rights leader became the first dedicated to a black American. In Texas, the event was acknowledged only as a bank holiday until 1992, when it became an official state holiday. It is observed on the third Monday in January.

King rose to prominence on the crest of a wave of unrest in the 1960s. He spent much of his life surrounded by controversy. An admirer of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the East Indian pacifist who led his people's uprising against colonial British rule in the 1940s, King patterned his non-violent protests after the Mahatma, as Gandhi was called.

But as more and more black Americans became caught up in the determination to vote, eat in restaurants and vote in elections, the tactic of peaceful civil disobedience began to take hold. As it gathered momentum, it attracted altruistic blacks and whites from across the country. They came to the Deep South to be part of the struggle for equality.

More than any other single figure, they came because of a struggle led by King.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Ga., one of three children of Martin Luther King, Sr. pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Educated at Morehouse College and Crozer Theological Seminary, he became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. He subsequently emerged as the moving force behind the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1956, which not only mobilized the black community and broke the city's pattern of segregated bus seating, it also issued in a new era of protests against racial discrimination.

From 1956 until his assassination in 1968, King remained an outspoken critic of racial injustice. His Georgia-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference remained at the forefront of civil rights activity in Alabama ,and much of the protests focused on Montgomery. Despite a beating by law enforcement officers that left him bloodied, scholars consider his classic "Letter from a Birmingham jail" as a well-tempered refutation of his critics.

In 1963, he led the watershed march on Washington, D.C., and made his historic "I have a dream" speech. It is regarded as an oratorical masterpiece of extemporaneous speaking and is now part of communications and public speaking curricula across the country. That same year he was named Time magazine's Man of the Year.

In 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize. When he returned from the ceremony in Sweden, he led the Selma-to-Montgomery freedom march for voter rights – an event marked by such violence against the marchers that it attracted international attention. As supporters from across the United States – and some foreign countries – joined the march, the National Guard was ordered in to protect the demonstrators. In 1965 the Voters Rights Act was passed.

From the civil rights battlefield in the South, King turned his sights to the North, where his non-violent tactics were less favorably received. When he helped galvanize those who opposed United States involvement in the Vietnam conflict, he drew even more criticism, including many who had supported him in the civil rights years. He also attracted the intensified ire of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in addition to becoming a target of secret U.S. Army intelligence investigations.

In 1968, King took on yet another struggle, that of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., who were seeking higher salaries and better working conditions. On April 4, 1968, the day after a sermon many viewed as a prophetic personal confrontation with immortality, King was shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel.

Although King's assailant, a white man named James Earl Ray, still maintains his innocence, he is currently in the 26th year of a 99-year sentence.

At the time of his death, King had moved increasingly toward mobilizing economically disadvantaged people, regardless of race, creed or color to work together to achieve economic and social parity. He had also begun to speak out against human rights violations in other parts of the world.

Ironically, the assassination of the man whose life had been devoted to non-violence was followed by outbreaks of violence across the country, resulting in several deaths, hundreds of injuries, thousands of arrests and millions of dollars in damage.

The holiday honoring King is observed on the third Monday in January. Recognized in every state in the Union except New Hampshire, it was adopted by Texas as a state holiday in 1992.

 

Kwanzaa

Although this week-long holiday has its roots in African traditions related to harvest festivals – the word itself means "first fruit" in Swahili – it was invented by a black man, Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga, in 1966, following the Watts riots.

Kwanzaa, which begins Dec. 26 and ends Jan. 1, was created as a unifying force for American blacks. And Karenga, who has written extensively on nationalism and the black esthetic, heads the black studies department at California State University/Long Beach. He started the holiday as a life-affirming event designed to bring black Americans closer to their African heritage and to one another. The focus of the holiday celebrates nature's bounty as Africans did at harvest time. It is a symbolic reaffirmation.

On each day of Kwanzaa, a candle in a seven-branch candelabrum is lit as part of a ceremony observing each of the seven principles that reinforce a sense of racial and cultural identity: Umoja, or unity; kujichugalia, self-determination; ujima, collective work and responsibility, ujimaa, cooperative economics; nia, purpose; imani, faith; and kjumba, creativity.

Three of the candles are red, symbolizing the struggle of the African people; three are green, representing hope; and one, a black candle that sits higher than the others, represents all African people. In the umoja ceremony, a unity cup is passed and the names of dead friends and relatives are called out in the spirit of remembrance.

The highlights of the week-long ceremonies are kujichugalia and imani. On the evening of kujichugalia participants take African names that have a special meaning.

Kwanzaa ends with imani, a feast and celebration of faith. The meal usually includes chicken, fish, beef and such vegetables as okra, rice, sweet potatoes (or plantains) and greens. Dining is usually communal, involving people from the same family, the same church, the same neighborhood or a family or community coalition. In recent years, some churches and synagogues have observed Kwanzaa together in as a demonstration of racial and religious harmony.

For many families concerned with the increased commercialism of Christmas, Kwanzaa has become an alternative observance. And instead of giving gifts, people share experiences through storytelling and give small tokens of esteem and affection, such as photographs, picture frames, books – things that have meaning but do not cause economic hardship.

— written by Ellen Sweets for the Texas Almanac 1994–1995.

 

SOURCES

The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

The Negro Almanac, 5th Edition, compiled by Harry A. Ploski and James Williams.

Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, by David J. Garrow.

Parting The Waters, by Taylor Branch.

Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept, 3, 1986), by Gaynelle Evans.

The Boston Globe, May 2, 1993.

The Dallas Morning News.

• David Matustic in the Austin American Statesman.

• Bob Ricco in The Washington Post, June 25, 1992.

• Retha Hill in The Washington Post, June 23, 1991.

• David Maraniss in The Washington Post, June 20, 1990.

• Karen M. Thomas in the Chicago Tribune, June 18, 1992.

• Merle English in Newsday, June 18, 1992.

 

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