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Can’t Turn Around Now, We’ve Come This Far: The Story of Juneteenth, Texas & My Family

Juneteenth has always been special to my family; we’re from Texas. In fact, like most Black people, my origins are in the south. It was the Great Migration (a movement that saw over seven million Black people move from the rural South to other parts of the U.S.) that brought my immediate family to California. But the spirit of Juneteenth, and what it means, stayed with us.

Juneteenth is a holiday for many Black people, and doubly so in the state of Texas. It was on this day in 1865 that Major General Granger arrived in Texas to inform the Black slaves there that they had been freed from slavery by the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation two and a half years prior.

By the end of the 19th century, my family lived in a rural area, not far from Houston, where some of the largest Juneteenth celebrations took place in Emancipation Park. My maternal great-great-grandfather (lovingly referred to as just “papa”) was a farmer and probably a sharecropper, like most Black people in the rural south. Jim Crow-era laws made it nearly impossible for Black people to be upwardly-mobile in any meaningful way, so they did what they knew; which was agriculture. Sharecropping was laborious and materially unfair, many sharecroppers remained in a constant debt cycle, working every day just to survive. Juneteenth was one of the few days they took off the farm and for many years, thousands of Black Texans took part. 

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Pictured: Family reunion in Chapel Hill, Texas. Image: Courtesy of Jess Sims.

My Granny was born in a rural town in Texas called Chappell Hill in 1931. The great depression saw her parents, and many other Black Texans, move away from the farms and into Houston seeking better opportunities. By the 1940s and 1950s, many had relocated, rapidly increasing the city’s Black population. This migration coincided with a decline in Juneteenth celebrations. Sadly, employers in Houston weren’t as keen to give every Black person the day off to celebrate, so they took to celebrating July 4th instead, which was already a nationally recognized holiday.

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Pictured: Granny at her high school graduation. Image: Courtesy of Jess Sims.

Unfortunately, Houston was only mildly better than the rural towns they came from. Redlining and segregation relegated most Black people to a handful of neighborhoods within Houston. The all-white Houston city council allowed private companies to deliberately place landfills and trash incinerators in Black neighborhoods for decades. They were only able to work in certain fields such as manual labor and domestic work. My Great Grandfather worked as a commercial painter and often worked other manual labor jobs on the weekends, many others were maids or maintenance workers. 

Through the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and then the 1970s, the landscape of Houston (and most of Urban Texas) drastically changed. Black Houstonians developed their neighborhoods into thriving economies, opening clubs,  restaurants and shops in the 3rd, 4th and 5th wards. The city became a hot spot for upward Black mobility; people purchased homes, graduated from universities, entered different career fields and joined the Houston and Texas political scene. It was Black politician and Houston native, Al Edwards, who introduced the bill that would make Texas the first U.S. state to declare Juneteenth an official holiday (Edwards, who passed away in April of this year, served in the Texas House of Representatives with my Uncle, the current mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, for two decades). 

My Grandparents, who met young and went on to have six children over a 40+ year marriage, had settled in northern California years earlier. They were able to find success in the Golden state, achieving many of the hallmarks of the American Dream. They bought a house in a great neighborhood, my mother and her siblings attended good schools and went on to college, they even had a vacation home. Our family maintained a tradition that many Black descendants of the great migration observed: going home to the south for the summer. They often visited relatives in Texas, having family reunions, and yes, celebrating Juneteenth. BBQs, picnics, music, dancing — families like mine saw Juneteenth as a way to celebrate emancipation and family. 

As Juneteenth continues to gain recognition, I’ve begun to reflect on what it means to me and what it means to those before me. Generations of Black Americans, Black Texans making a way out of no way, finding faith and hope often unfair and hostile conditions. And I can’t turn around now; in a time where it seems progress is lost and Black people are as far behind as we ever were ahead, it’s Juneteenth that reminds me I am somebody’s wildest dream. I am the representation of hope, endurance and freedom and I can’t give up now. WE cannot give up now. So, on this Juneteenth, I hope your day is filled with reflection, pride, gratitude and most of all, family.

A version of this story was originally published June 2020. 

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