June 19th has just been recognized as a federal holiday to mark the end of slavery in America, but Eleanor Thompson has decades of memories celebrating it in Austin.
“It was a big city-wide event,” recalls Thompson, 78. “It was our vacation.”
June 19th pays tribute to June 19, 1865, the day the last enslaved African Americans were freed in Galveston, Texas. Although the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, it was not enforced in Galveston until federal soldiers arrived to read it after the end of the civil war.
Until last year, Texas was the only state that recognized June 19th as a state holiday, giving most state employees a paid day off.
On Thursday, Joe Biden declared “National Independence Day June 19” a legal holiday. Calls to make June 19th a federal holiday were expanded last year in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd. Many national companies began granting employees a day off last year.
Thompson’s family has been in Austin for at least five generations, and her memories of celebrating the 19th date back to her childhood days.
“It is very significant. Even now, it really hasn’t stopped over the centuries. We still celebrate it, ”Thompson said.
Cookouts were a staple at the celebrations, with barbecue grills lit up all over Austin. The men, including Thompson’s father, began barbecuing the night before to make sure the feast was ready for the next day. Thompson said she remembers that she and her siblings made a big fuss over the outfits they would wear.
People also brought side dishes and desserts to cookouts, and debates abounded over who had the best potato salad. Thompson always made sure to get a slice of cake. Children played baseball and adults sometimes joined i.
Thompson specifically recalls attending his church’s grand celebration in Onion Creek, a South Austin neighborhood, and having gone from neighborhood to neighborhood with his family to join multiple celebrations with family and friends.
A parade, in which Thompson has marched on several occasions, passed through the city. People pulled out their lawn chairs and lined the streets to watch the procession. Thompson remembers leading a song in the neighborhood, where lyrics to spiritual songs were put on stage.
The winner of the Miss June 16th pageant, which is still held in Austin and other cities in the United States, would be announced. Thompson’s younger sister won third place one year.
“Her [recently] He said, ‘I still have the tape that I used that day, and I have a little trophy that I got for that,’ ”Thompson said. “Those things are precious, they keep precious memories for us.”
Even those who did not attend the big celebrations often honored the occasion within their own family.
“People were barbecuing in their patios. Maybe they weren’t going to the events, but it was a holiday that people recognized and wanted to slow down and watch because it’s important to us, ”Thompson said. “Our stories about slavery are horrendous and heartbreaking, but emancipation was a wonderful thing.”
Thompson said she was excited by the news this week that June 19th will be a federal holiday. “I had no idea we had that kind of moment,” he said. “I think it will be a real opportunity to at least reflect on what slavery is all about, because we don’t want that kind of thing to happen ever again. That’s the purpose of those good memories about it. “
While Thompson is celebrating the June 19th widespread adoption, she is also on a mission to restore what she calls the “Old Emancipation Park” in the Chestnut neighborhood of East Austin, close to where she grew up. The park is currently a vacant lot, but Thompson would like to see it revived as a place to commemorate and celebrate June 16. The plot of land was originally purchased by emancipated slaves as a place to celebrate the holiday, and was used as such in the mid-20th century.
“It’s just a vacant lot. It’s kind of sad, ”Thompson said. “I know for a fact that it is a place that deserves some kind of recognition and memory, that these men thought it was important enough to buy a piece of land so that we would have a place to go and celebrate on June 19th.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism