by Sessei Meg Levie
Last year, President Biden made Juneteenth a national holiday. June 19, 1865 was the day that federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and proclaimed the freedom of slaves in Texas, two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth has been a holiday for the Black community in Texas since the 1860s. But even though I grew up in Texas, I didn’t know about it until my 20s.
In 1993 I was home in Texas for the summer, and my boyfriend at the time, Mark, had come to visit me. I read that a Juneteenth celebration was happening at Riverfront Park in Beaumont, about half an hour away. Until then, I didn’t really know about Juneteenth. It wasn’t taught in my seventh grade Texas history class, and nobody talked about it. This was a small Southern town, with one public school system, everybody all together but still following many of the map lines of social segregation laid down long before.
We drove down to the place and parked, and as we stepped out onto the grass where the crowd was, we realized we were the only white people there. If I had been by myself I might have turned back, but I had a friend.
Mark was encountering Texas and the Deep South for the first time. He grew up in Los Angeles and went to school in the East, was Jewish and an American studies major. He brought just the right mix of outsider-ness, sincere curiosity about all aspects of the human experience, keen awareness of history, and general amiability to create an opening for stepping across unwritten social rules of who belonged where.
What I remember: a sunny day on the grass by the sparkling water of the Neches River; people being curious and open and welcoming us, inviting us into a big crawfish boil; someone showing Mark how to shell the crawfish; a six-year-old boy onstage giving it his all singing gospel; the feeling of festivity all around.
I continue to feel grateful for that day, for the entry into something that had surrounded me all my life and I didn’t know was there, didn’t know how to appreciate or support.
The next year I was back home by myself. I wanted to go again, but hesitated. I asked my mother if she wanted to go, but she expressed doubt that we would be welcome. I ended up getting in the car and going down anyway. It was in a new location, at the fairgrounds. When I got there, I drove by but I found I didn’t have the courage to stop. So I turned around and went back home.
Now Juneteenth is a national holiday. I’m glad that someone like me growing up in Texas doesn’t have to wait till she’s in her 20s to learn about it. And may it bring awareness to the work still left to do.
PS – Just as I was publishing this, someone sent me this rare footage of a 1925 Juneteenth parade in Beaumont, Texas.