Skip Navigation

Juneteenth Holiday Holds Special Meaning in Galveston    

June 19, 2020


Galveston's Ashton Villa is one of the locations historians say the message of the General Order No. 3 was announced to the public, informing enslaved people of their freedom. Juneteenth celebrations often occur on the grounds annually.

By Andréa Bolt, Communications Specialist, Division of Marketing & Communications

To many, Galveston Island is a quick trip for a fun beach getaway, a weekend of interesting historic tours, or a great fishing spot. But for Black and African American Galvestonians, Texans and Americans, Galveston means so much more. It was on this island on June 19, 1865 that hundreds of thousands of enslaved people were delivered the message of General Order No. 3 by Union troops— it was here they learned they were free.
 
“Confederates were leaving places like Mississippi and Louisiana and coming to Texas in hopes that it (enslavement) might stand,” explains Texas A&M University at Galveston’s Dr. Carol Bunch Davis. “When the Confederacy did finally fall in June, Union Army General Gordon Granger came to Galveston and read Order No. 3.”
 
Birth of Juneteenth
 
Although the Emancipation Proclamation had formally freed them almost two and a half years earlier, Texas was a geographically and culturally removed slave state whose slave owners were loath to accept defeat and the forced change it represented. Combined with a low number of Union troops, acknowledgement and enforcement of the proclamation was both slow and inconsistent.
 
“Basically, the Confederates were holding on, the planters wanted to get one more crop, and news traveled much slower in those days,” explains Davis.
 
Even after General Robert E. Lee formally surrendered April 9, 1865, the western portion of the Trans-Mississippi Army held out until June 2. On June 18, Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops arrived on Galveston Island to occupy Texas on the federal government’s behalf.
 
Among other locations, many historians claim Gen. Granger read aloud the contents of General Order No. 3 from the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, extending the message of their freedom to Texas’ estimated quarter of a million enslaved people. 

Freed Black and African Americans observed “Emancipation Day,” as it was first known, as early as 1866 in Galveston. Later, the holiday was renamed Juneteenth, an amalgamation of June, 19, and jubilation. Initially observed in Texas, this  event’s legacy is observed today through nationwide, even worldwide, commemorations celebrating freedom and the triumph of the human spirit.
 
Davis Champions Diversity Studies at Texas A&M-Galveston, Beyond
 
Black and African American history and heritage is part of Davis’ life and work as a person, professor, scholar, and a longtime resident of Galveston.
 
As the Department of Liberal Studies’ Assistant Department Head and Associate Professor of English, Davis teaches ENGL 204 Introduction to African American Literature, ENGL 485 Directed Study courses, including African American Cultural Production and Human Rights and Literature, as well as Texas A&M-Galveston’s cultural discourse class. She also chairs the campus’ Civic Literacy, Inclusion, Diversity and Equity (CLIDE) Committee, which is overseen by the campus’ Office of Academic Affairs. In September, Davis will join that office as an ADVANCE Administrative Fellow and Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs.
 
Davis helped establish and is the faculty lead for Texas A&M-Galveston’s Common Reader Program. The course encourages students to engage in critical reading and reflection on contemporary problems through the analysis of a single selected text assigned in courses across a range of disciplines. Faculty and staff are encouraged to participate in the reading and the campus-wide discussion, which includes faculty, student and staff discussion panels, as well as related workshops and presentations. 
 
In September, Dr. Clementine Msengi, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at Lamar University and a Rwandan genocide survivor, will present, “Finding Peace in Turbulent Times,” as a part of the Common Reader Program’s Sea Aggie Experiences Series. The campus begins its new selection, Angela Saini’s “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the Research That’s Changing the Story,” this fall. Saini’s book explores the ways that gender bias informs scientific research that in turn shapes our social beliefs.
 
For now, Davis is focusing on another kind of literature, one she has written.
 
She is at work on a book manuscript that critically assesses how African American Galvestonians’ self-representation; including memoirs, journalism, commemorative spaces, cultural institutions, leisure spaces and oral histories crafts and affirms a material and imaginative black sense of place. This work has personal ties for Davis, but also for Galveston. Her project puts African American Galvestonians’ self-representations and the island’s white normative representation in dialogue.
 
A forthcoming book chapter, “Always on Duty: Galveston’s African American Beaches and Lifeguards,” to be published in the volume, “Narrating and Constructing the Beach,” interprets accounts from Wavery Guidry and James Helton, two African American lifeguards who worked at the city’s two black beaches between 1934 and 1965. The chapter frames their lifeguarding as more than simply physical labor, but also as cultural work that resisted antiblackness as well as contributed to building a black sense of place and belonging in Galveston.
 
Juneteenth is a Celebration
 
Juneteenth truly is a celebration of that sense of place and belonging, especially here in Galveston, says Davis.
 
Like all holidays, celebratory activities figure heavily on Juneteenth. Picnics, prayer vigils and parades are a few ways in which the community honors the legacy of the holiday and its symbolism.
 
Galveston’s Old Central Cultural Center, Inc. (OCCC) hosts a special Juneteenth breakfast every year on the grounds of Ashton Villa, often with a ceremonial reading of General Order No. 3.
 
Established in 1885, the original OCCC building located at 2627 Avenue M was the state’s first African American high school. After the integration of public schools in 1968 and the result of the site being moved, the original school and library have been made into a cultural center dedicated to supporting vulnerable members of the community, learning, and the preservation of artifacts of black culture.
 
Known for its annual community Juneteenth celebration, Reedy Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church is another piece of that history, says Davis. Tracing its origins to 1848, when enslaved congregants met outdoors for services, this still-active place of worship was likely the first such church in the state and is cited on the National Register of Historic Places for its significance. Davis says Reedy is also another likely historic location where Gen. Granger read the General Order No. 3 for more Galvestonians to hear.
 
Though celebrations might look a little different this year due to COVID-related safety and social distancing measures, Davis says the meaning of Juneteenth remains stronger than ever, in Galveston and beyond.

“Juneteenth is a time for reflection on the incredible strides formerly enslaved people made without resources, on the resilience they showed by carving out lives for themselves, particularly for the people who remained here in Galveston,” she said.

She said she hopes others can honor and recognize the importance of the holiday, especially with the understanding that Black and African American history is American history.

“This holiday crystallizes the dichotomy of the African American experience in the United States.  It is a moment of celebration and gratitude that is wrought from the pain of the Middle Passage and more than 400 years of enslavement in this country,” she stated. “For me it is a bittersweet, but incredibly important holiday. It affords all of us an opportunity to reflect on and honor the humanity of those who were legally denied it as they endured enslavement.”

###

Media contact:
Andréa Bolt
Communications Specialist
a_bolt@tamug.edu



Texas A&M University at Galveston is an ocean-oriented branch campus of Texas A&M University which educates nearly 2,300 undergraduate and graduate students in a unique blend of marine and maritime programs, including majors in science, business, engineering, liberal arts, and transportation. It is driving the development of the blue economy in the Gulf Coast Region and is a critical contributor to Texas A&M’s sea-grant portion of Texas A&M’s rare land-, sea-, space-grant mission with nearly $10 million in research expenditures.
 
Texas A&M-Galveston is also home to the Texas A&M Maritime Academy, one of seven in the U.S. and the only academy integrated into a Tier 1 academic institution, which trains over 400 cadets annually for maritime service and employment around the world. Texas A&M-Galveston is ideally located in Galveston, Texas on the Gulf Coast where is it surrounded by the industry, environment and programs essential to fulfilling its special-purpose mission. Aggies are known for their deep commitment to the success of each other and their strong desire to serve.

If you are interested in supporting this endeavor or research, please contact the Texas A&M University at Galveston Office of Development by email at GiveToSeaAggies@txamfoundation.com or by calling (409) 740-4481.