Also known as Emancipation Day or Freedom Day, Juneteenth is celebrated in commemoration of June 19, 1865, when the end of slavery was finally proclaimed in Texas by Major General Gordon Granger. Although the Civil War had ended that April, Confederate troops in Texas continued fighting until mid-May, Annette Gordon-Reed recounts in her book, On Juneteenth. Following emancipation, newly freed slaves journeyed north from Galveston to the banks of Houston’s Buffalo Bayou, where they established thriving communities where Black businesses and Black families flourished.
What many don’t know, however, is how central the city of Houston became to the history of those communities—as well as what we celebrate on June 19 to this day. That may well change, however, thanks to the initiatives of several preservation-minded groups that work with three significant areas of the city: Freedmen’s Town, Emancipation Park, and the neighborhood of Independence Heights, as well as their place on the Emancipation National Historic Trail, a path currently undergoing review for establishment by the National Parks Service that traces the migration of emancipated slaves in Texas.
“People should know that what you know about American culture, a great bit of it came from Houston, and you have no idea because the credit has not been given because the stories have not been told,” says Zion Escobar, executive director of the Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy. “That is what we are doing together.”
To begin, visitors can experience the 51-mile trail that marks the original Juneteenth journey, starting at the Gulf Coast city of Galveston and ending in stops in Houston. “This trail allows us to tell [our] story authentically,” says Tanya Debose, executive director of the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council, a nonprofit that seeks to strengthen the community through a combination of preservation and revitalization efforts. “You can visit these spaces where you can see what these people actually did.”
Standing at the intersection of Andrews and Wilson Streets in the heart of Freedmen’s Town feels like stepping back in time, with handcrafted red brick streets dating to the 1800s and historic shotgun homes lining some of the narrow neighborhood roads. From this central spot, once the unofficial town square of the community, landmarks like the Rutherford B. H. Yates Museum and the J. Vance Lewis House are just steps away.
The state-of-the-art community center at Emancipation Park
In all, the Freedmen’s Town Historic District totals about forty blocks, only a portion of the original community that once had upward of 400 Black businesses and, in the 1920s, was home to one-third of Houston’s African American population. The community’s vibrancy has diminished over time as a result of eminent domain, gentrification, and the construction of Interstate 45 in 1953, which effectively cut Freedmen’s Town in half. Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, whose spires rise amid downtown’s towering buildings, is the only vestige of Freedmen’s Town east of the interstate. Parishioners still worship in the church’s original handmade pews.
This content was originally published here.