Is this America’s most misunderstood holiday?
Aunt Lillie is a special person in my life, even though we never met. June 19 also is a special day — and both for the same reason.
It has to do with one of the lesser-known American holidays.
Aunt Lillie (she actually pronounced it la-LEÉ) lived most of her days in Bay St. Louis, MS. She was the last member of my family to be a slave.
At the height of the Civil War in 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, abolishing slavery. But this only had force in those parts of the South the Union army controlled — which in 1862, wasn’t much.
Three years later, with the Confederacy crushed, a Union general named Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, TX and promptly laid down the law, which he read from a balcony to the local populace:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
Until that moment, to people like my Aunt Lillie, the Emancipation Proclamation had been little more than words on a page. Now, Lincoln’s promise to America of “a new birth of freedom” had been made real. This order would be heard throughout the South, but Galveston heard it first.
The date was June 19, 1865.
Someone eventually compressed that into Juneteenth, and former slaves everywhere — including Bay St. Louis — came to accept it as the date that marked their liberation. Many would treat it as a second birthday.
For decades thereafter, ex-slaves and their free-born kin would trek to Galveston in a pilgrimage not unlike that of Muslims to Mecca. The celebrations could last a week.
They sang. They danced. They went to church. They staged rodeos and paid homage to legendary black cowboys like Bill Pickett. They traced their ancestral roots. And they cooked. Barbecues became a Juneteenth staple.
Another staple was red soda. Sounds bizarre, I know, but they had their reasons.
Back in the day, strawberry-flavored soda drinks were new, exotic, pricey — and off-limits to slaves. Then came Juneteenth — and BANG! Instant tradition. Now, on your day, you drank the red soda. Strawberry-flavored, cream soda-flavored, whatever flavor. It just had to be red.
Their descendants were still doing it a century later, as R&B singer Joe Tex noted in one of his songs, “Men Are Getting Scarce:”
“She reminds me of them folks
up in Navisoda, Texas,
eatin’ barbecue and drinkin’ red sody water
on the 19th of June!”
(These days, there’s a Texas soft drink called Big Red that sells a lot on Juneteenth. Some love it. Others have likened its taste to ice-cold Robitussin. Either way, it’s sold in 44 of the 50 U.S. states…and Tahiti. Don’t ask.)
With the black migration from the rural South to the industrial North and expanding West, Juneteenth fell into decline, but the Civil Rights movement revived it. And in 1980, Texas recognized it as an official state holiday.
Today, across the country and even internationally, black Americans mark Juneteenth in a variety of ways — some public, some private, some communal, some personal.
As for my Aunt Lillie, she lived to be 104. She died a few years before I was born. She saw whole generations live and die in bondage. But her own life, begun in slavery, ended as one long drink of freedom.
I try to imagine how her spirit must have soared every year around this time. I try to fathom the joy, the gratitude she must have felt. And I try to comprehend the glow in her soul at the moment she realized that maybe, just maybe, all things really were possible.
That is why, every year on Juneteenth, I feel a gaze that I never saw, feel a voice that I never heardhellip;and I rejoice.
Happy Birthday, Aunt Lillie.
Galveston today is a city of about 60,000 people, less than an hour’s drive south of Houston. It sits at one end of a barrier island of the same name in the Gulf of Mexico.
That island has about 32 miles of uninterrupted beach and shoreline.
The city itself sports a Schlitterbahn waterpark, several historic ships and is one of the major cruise ship ports on the Gulf. It also offers activities ranging from jazz festivals to surf and skate camps.
Some of the best barbecue I’ve ever had in my life — and definitely the hottest — was in Galveston.
Galveston is one of the few places on Earth, if not the only one, that has a museum based on an offshore oil rig.
Among the items on exhibit there is a blowout preventer that you can see for yourself, up close. Given this year’s BP oil spill, which eventually may threaten Galveston’s economic existence, the irony of that particular display is breathtaking.
If you’d like to join in this year’s Juneteenth festivities — or just enjoy Galveston before the oil tide gets there — you can find more detailed visitor information on this site.
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