President Joe Biden signed a bill Thursday designating Juneteenth, a day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, a federal holiday. It marks the day when — as relayed in a story which author Clint Smith calls a “long-held myth” — a Union general stood on a balcony in Galveston, Texas, to publicly read the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended enslavement in 10 states in the Confederacy, including for 250,000 enslaved people in Texas. That was June 19, 1865, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Proclamation, and two months after the end of the Civil War.
Texas, where Juneteenth began, got a head start on the rest of the U.S. by making the day a state holiday in 1980. It’s also the site of Emancipation Park, a small parcel of land purchased in 1872 by a group of formerly enslaved residents in Houston, so that they would always have a place to celebrate Juneteenth. When Smith, author of How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With Slavery Across America, was researching his book, people told him about the park and that if he “wanted to understand what Juneteenth meant in Texas,” he wrote, “I had to go there.”
The land’s owners gave Emancipation Park, the state’s oldest park, to the city of Houston in 1916. The only park open to Black Houstonians in the Jim Crow era, it became dilapidated over the decades, until a grassroots campaign and city redevelopment efforts resulted in its restoration and expansion. It was named a historic landmark in 2007. In 2019, the park, now the Emancipation Park Conservancy and the beneficiary of a $30-million-plus renovation, was designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a Site of Memory Associated with the Slave Route Project.
And in 2021, the historic park is once again a center for celebrating Juneteenth — the Emancipation Park Conservancy has launched a national campaign, #WEAREJUNETEENTH, to celebrate the holiday and the history, traditions, heritage, and culture of the Black community.
For the meetings industry, it also serves as a model of how to create hybrid events that speak to a global platform, while retaining a strong local presence. From June 1-19, the Emancipation Park Conservancy broadcast a series of digital events through Facebook, YouTube, and the Emancipation Park website, highlighting community history and culture through music, food, and dance, along with panel discussions on topics specific to Black experiences and spotlighting Black businesses and organizations.
Houstonians can register for a traditional lunch — barbecue, watermelon, and red soda — served at the park on Saturday and the Conservancy will broadcast a free, 90-minute musical celebration, We Rise Up!, with local musicians.
In How the Word Is Passed, Smith interviewed Jackie Bostic about Juneteenth and public memory. Bostic is the great-granddaughter of Jack Yates, a minister, community leader, and former enslaved person, who led the original group who bought the park in 1872. “I think my generation — many getting killed, and beaten, and spit on, and dogs, and hoses, did not understand that you have to keep telling the story in order for people to understand,” Bostic told Smith. “Each generation has to know the story of how we got where we are today, because if you don’t understand, then you are in the position to go back to it.”
Emancipation Park’s 149th Annual Juneteenth Celebration Kick-off
Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.