Born in Texas, Juneteenth embraces deeper meaning for Americans in 2020
For many people in the United States, the date June 19th – designated as Juneteenth -- has taken on new significance of freedom and racial equality. Today, more U.S. cities and corporations are embracing the idea of paid holidays for employees in honor of Juneteenth.
Juneteenth or Emancipation Day was born in Texas on June 19, 1865, when more than 2,000 federal soldiers of the 13th Army Corps arrived in Galveston. Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger’s men marched through the city reading General Order No. 3 informing Texans that, in accordance with a Proclamation from President Abraham Lincoln, all slaves were free. The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued September 1862; it was late getting to Texas.
“I spent 18 years in Tennessee and we never talked about it, so I think it was mostly a Texas celebration,” said Dr. Dwonna Goldstone, director of the African American Studies Minor at Texas State University. “When I lived in Virginia we didn’t talk about Juneteenth. It doesn’t mean it is not important -- I think it is, especially now given the rebellions against what happened to George Floyd and other black men.”
Goldstone said that it wasn’t until she was a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin that she learned about the significance of Juneteenth.
Texas didn’t officially recognize Juneteenth until 1979, when Gov. Bill Clements Jr. signed a bill into law sponsored by state Rep. Al Edwards (D-Houston), making it a state holiday. Early in the 20th century, the City Times, a black newspaper, had coined the name Juneteenth. By 2014 a historical marker was erected in Galveston.
In Texas, fourth graders are supposed to learn about the origins and significance of state celebrations like Juneteenth and Texas Independence Day in social studies classes. But the school year is over by the time June 19 rolls around and teachers usually don’t get to it.
In April, the State Board of Education approved an African American studies course for high school students in Texas. Goldstone is a member of the African American Studies Course Curriculum Advisory Team. Texas is now the third state in the nation to adopt African American studies in public schools.
Goldstone, who teaches an Introduction to African American Studies course, uses slave narratives in her class. “I started a class teaching Frederick Douglas’s autobiography, then teaching Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. The students knew there was slavery -- but I don’t think they realized the depth of it.
“Frederick Douglas talks about slavery from the viewpoint of a male perspective and Harriet Jacobs talks about it from a female’s perspective. One of the things she talks about – when you become a teenager your body is even more not your own. That surprised me that they (students) had no idea until we talked about it – ‘wow, I had no idea it was this brutal.’”
Goldstone said it is not unusual to hear students complain that they were not taught black history in school. When they complain about what they have or have not been taught in the public schools, she asks for a show of hands for those planning on going into public schools. “Very few are,” she said. “I tell them, don’t get mad at white people who aren’t teaching your history if you yourself are not going into the classroom.”
While she wasn’t able to discuss Juneteenth during the spring semester course because the pandemic changed the way classes met this year, Goldstone did discuss the 1921 Black Wall Street Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Called the single worst incident of racial violence in American history it was also known as the Tulsa Race Riot. Some 300 people were killed and $2 million in property damage was reported. Until recently, the Tulsa massacre was rarely mentioned in history books.
Goldstone said that Juneteenth is in some ways a metaphor on what is happening today. “So many students don’t learn the history until they get to college and even then, you have to seek it out. I think many of my colleagues are trying to do a better job of including the stories of non-white people, but the students have to be more deliberate in seeking it out.
“Once you get more diverse voices you will get diverse perspectives,” she said.