By Robert E Purvis
Juneteenth! Who would have thought that the date would become a National Holiday after over a century of celebration by the Black community? In 1980, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday, and several others followed suit over the years culminating in the June 17, 2021 announcement. The question, however, is how many people know the origin of Juneteenth, and why is it a significant part of our national history?
Juneteenth celebrates the 1865 arrival of Federal troops in Galveston, Texas, when they took control of the state and freed all slaves. In 1866, those formerly enslaved people organized the first annual celebration as “Jubilee Day.” This event began spreading the Juneteenth tradition around the country as Black people migrated from Texas to other localities. The June 19th tradition features music, prayer services, parades, readings, processions, and more.
Juneteenth is significant because it honors the end of all slavery in the United States. It is also considered the longest-running African American holiday.
On that first Juneteenth, the Commanding Officer of the 13th Army Corps marched through the city reading General Order, No. 3. This order informed all Texans that, under the Emancipation Proclamation from the President of the United States, all slaves were free. The reading sites included the 1861 Galveston Custom House, courthouse (now known as The Customs House); the Army garrison headquarters at the Osterman Building; and the Black Church on Broadway, also known as the Reedy Chapel-AME Church. Except for The Customs House and AME Church, all the other buildings no longer exist.
The Customs House has been closed to the public for the past decade, operating as a commercial office building. Now that Juneteenth is a federal holiday, community leaders and businesses support the revitalization of The Customs House as a historical landmark by supporting plans for a June 19 Museum. The goal is to develop a world-class tourist destination dedicated to Juneteenth. The Customs House revitalization is using private funds. Although the government has officially recognized the observance of Juneteenth as a national holiday, there are no funds or grants readily available to preserve any related historical landmarks. June 19 Museum, Inc is transforming The Customs House historic site into “The Custom House – Juneteenth Museum.” This new center will feature a boutique hotel, restaurant, and educational activities that support the national celebration of Juneteenth. It will also be an “experiential museum” that will use virtual and augmented reality to celebrate global diversity and inclusion through the stories and historical significance of Juneteenth. On the corner of 22nd and Strand in Galveston, where Osterman Building once stood, a Subject Marker commemorates General Order No. 3 and recognizes Juneteenth as the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery. The marker, acknowledging the importance of Freedom, will come to life within the Custom House walls using these advanced technologies. The museum will testify to the local community’s strength while simultaneously recognizing the painful impact of slavery, racial discrimination, and racism on our Nation. The Customs House renovation extends the revitalization of the 1918 Post Office Street business area. It will also be a new and exciting addition to the year-round celebration of Juneteenth.