Growing up, I spent most summers with my grandparents on the east side of Fort Worth, Texas, which meant playing in the sprinklers, trips to the military commissary and, of course, plenty of junk food. On Mondays, my cousins and I would get dropped off at PopPop and Granny’s, and we’d stay until Friday evening, which was when they hosted some of their closest friends for game night. When my mother worked late, I would stay a while longer, visiting with each sophisticated, silver-haired guest as they walked through the front door. One woman in particular, Ms. Opal Lee, was my favorite. Ms. Lee always walked into the house on a mission (usually more pressing than winning another round of cards). In June, her mission was to educate us all about the significance of Juneteenth.
It was June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger, a Union general during the American Civil War, issued General Orders, No. 3, informing Texans that “in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, ‘all slaves are free.’” This order became the basis for the holiday.
On Juneteenth, also referred to as Emancipation Day, many African Americans celebrate their “independence day,” recognizing when Texas slaves were informed they were free. The Emancipation Proclamation took effect two years prior on Jan. 1, 1863, but in many states — primarily border states and those not liberated by Union troops — slaves were still not freed. Granger’s order, along with the ratification of the 13th Amendment later in 1865, reflected a turning point in the lives of black Americans nationwide.
In the first celebrations of the holiday, African Americans saw it as an opportunity to reunite lost families and galvanize racial equality. Black people from all over the state of Texas gathered in their finest clothes to observe Juneteenth through readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, religious sermons, preparation of specialty dishes, as well as playing games. Eventually, when the festivities of Juneteenth began to cross states, participants were forbidden from the usage of public space for the gatherings, in acts of discrimination. So instead, they gathered near lakes and rivers until they accrued enough capital to pay for their own places to celebrate, one example being Emancipation Park in Houston.
In my hometown, Ms. Lee’s commitment to educating and elevating black culture goes back generations. She would canvass the neighborhood informing families about the importance of celebrating Juneteenth. Her passion for this inspired her at 90 years old to start her “Walk to D.C.” campaign, where she journeyed from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., to advocate for making Juneteenth a national holiday. Years have passed since that momentous occasion, and still, Ms. Lee educates communities about the holiday. She is driven by the desire to pass the torch to the next generation and provoke young people to take action.
Juneteenth became a Texas state holiday Jan. 1, 1980. Today, 45 states have laws or resolutions that celebrate it. People like Ms. Lee have made these celebrations possible, and it is up to all of us to continue the movement of equality, acceptance and freedom. We must embrace the diversity around us and respect our differences by celebrating our humanity.
~Alexandria Evans, Texas A&M ’22