One hundred and forty-eight years ago today, in 1865, the balcony of Ashton Villa, a grand home in Galveston built and owned by James Moreau Brown was the site of one of the most important proclamations to be heard by enslaved black men and women of Texas.
Union general, Gordon Granger, accompanied by 2,000 federal soldiers arrived a day earlier to lay claim to the state after the civil war, and to inform the general populous that slavery had been abolished. Two years, six months and nineteen days after the date President Lincoln had deemed the Emancipation Proclamation take effect.
General Order Number 3 read in part…
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with the proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights of property between former master and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that of employer and hired labor….”
The proclamation, as it slowly filtered through to the 250,000 slaves in Texas, went on to warn that neither gatherings at military posts nor idleness anywhere would be countenanced. Over time the day became known as Juneteenth, said to have derived from the merging of the word June and the contraction of the word nineteenth.
Churches often sponsored celebrations on their grounds each year, in part because public property was closed to African Americans; or gatherings were held around creeks and rivers outside the towns, where praise was given and fishing, barbecuing and general amusements were offered. Seven years later, in Houston, under the direction of Reverend Jack Yates, the princely sum of $1000 was raised from the local black community for the purchase of land in the city’s Third Ward. Emancipation Park as it was known became the site of future Juneteenth celebrations. Aptly, the design proposals for the revitalisation of the park, due to start in October 2013, have been led by Philip Freelon, one of the architects responsible for the design the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
It seems therefore fitting that members of various committees associated with the proposed museum, and the stocking of the latest arrow in the Smithsonian quiver, were in Houston last night, on the eve of Juneteenth, to speak about the project. Ground was broken earlier this year for this important addition to the country’s cadre of museums to be built on the last available plot on the National Mall, a prime spot adjacent to the Washington Monument and just below the White House.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture promises to tell not just the story of enslavement, segregation and the struggles of African Americans in the country, but also to celebrate the immense achievements of both extraordinary and ordinary people. “It is not just,” as Dr. Flemming told us, “an African American story, but an American story told through African American eyes.”
The galleries will fall into three categories, History, Community and Cultural. In one of the history galleries for example there will be the first permanent exhibition on the economic impact of segregation. Another will show the pivotal moments from the Civil Rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 to President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009.
Houston will be well represented by artefacts from Freedman’s Town, a wedding scrapbook showing the migration story and, from a recent first, the pointe shoes worn by Lauren Anderson, the first black prima ballerina of a major dance company, Houston Ballet. African Americans in institutions born out of segregation, such as universities and newspapers, and in the military, sports, music and art will all be represented, as will the accomplishments of stonemasons, blacksmiths and carpenters.
Another architect involved in the design for the NMAAHC, David Adjaye, a Ghanaian born to a diplomat father and who moved to Britain at age nine, incorporates his Yoruba roots into the building as well as a riff on work by the celebrated Charleston blacksmith Philip Simmons who died in 2009.
Artists such as John Biggers and Kermit Oliver will of course be featured in the 4,000 square feet of galleries but so to artisans like Mary Jackson, a fourth generation basket weaver from the Sea Islands along the Atlantic coast of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
The opening of this museum is slated for December 2015, a mere ten years in the making when the normal time frame for such an undertaking is between 17 to 22 years. Juneteenth 2016 will surely be a day not just celebrating emancipation but also the rich cultural wealth African Americans have brought to these United States.