Galveston, Texas, is the birthplace of the Juneteenth holiday Union Gen. Gordon Granger set up his headquarters in Galveston, Texas, and famously signed an order June 19, 1865, "All slaves are free." President Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday last year.

The new Juneteenth federal holiday traces its roots to Galveston, Texas

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today is the second observance of America's newest federal holiday, Juneteenth. We celebrate the day 157 years ago that a Union army general came to the port city of Galveston in the District of Texas and posted an order to the citizenry, including the words, all slaves are free. That day was 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, an order that could not be enforced in the defiant South without Union troops. As NPR's John Burnett reports, today Black Galvestonians are jubilant that the world is learning their story.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: A couple of months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox courthouse, Major General Gordon Granger sailed into Galveston to take command of all federal troops in the District of Texas. He came here to this spot in June of 1865.

SAM COLLINS: Galveston is the birthplace of Juneteenth. Here at the southwest corner of 22nd and Strand is where Gordon Granger set up his Union headquarters.

BURNETT: Sam Collins is unofficial ambassador of Juneteenth tourism. As he explains, the edifice occupied by the Union Army is long gone. Now it's a parking lot bounded by ocean-themed gift shops, an Irish pub and a store that sells toe rings. Two and a half years before Granger arrived, President Abraham Lincoln had issued his Emancipation Proclamation that legally freed 3 1/2 million African Americans enslaved in Confederate states. But it was here that federal troops issued and enforced General Order No. 3, which came to be called the Juneteenth order.

COLLINS: One of my grandmother's childhood friends often shares the story that her grandfather used to tell her the oral history, that it was not a piece of paper that freed the enslaved people of Texas. It was the men with the guns. These were the Union soldiers, many of them United States Colored Troops, that showed up and told the plantation owners and the enslavers, you have to stop. These people are free.

BURNETT: There are a couple of misconceptions about the Juneteenth order that Sam Collins would like to correct. First, while General Granger gets the credit for emancipating slaves in Texas, he did not actually write the order. One of his staff officers did. And it was never read publicly, despite the current reenactments in town. Second, the order contains the soaring language, all slaves are free, and it states they now have absolute equality with their former masters.

COLLINS: Till later, the last two sentences advised the freedmen to remain at the prison homes and work for wages. So you're free, but don't go anywhere.

BURNETT: Despite the original patronizing language, June 19 became Emancipation Day in Texas. And over the decades, it's been adopted by African Americans throughout the land. Here on the island, Juneteenth remains an intensely local celebration.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome to Galveston, Texas, the birthplace of Juneteenth.

BURNETT: Last Tuesday, Avenue L Missionary Baptist Church kicked off a week packed with parades, picnics, gospel music and freedom tours. But it wasn't always so, says Sharon Batiste Gillins, a genealogist who is BOI, as they say, born on the island. She was one of the speakers at the church event.

SHARON BATISTE GILLINS: But I have to tell you that when I was growing up here, Juneteenth was not a subject that we learned in school.

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: No.

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBER #2: That's right.

BATISTE GILLINS: It was not in any school book.

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: No.

BATISTE GILLINS: We celebrated Juneteenth in the family.

BURNETT: Gillins sat down for an interview later. She says when she went away to Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1969, the Juneteenth celebrations were larger and more public there than they'd been in Galveston. It was around 1979, when Texas declared a Juneteenth state holiday, that Galveston began celebrating it in a big way. Now that it's a national holiday, just like MLK Day, Gillins cringes at the Juneteenth party supplies on display in stores.

BATISTE GILLINS: Consistent with the American culture, it's already being commercialized. We're going to see things like the Juneteenth half-off sale.

BURNETT: What's considered over the top? Last month, Walmart withdrew its celebration-edition Juneteenth ice cream and apologized. For Gillins, along with local pride comes a dose of wistfulness.

BATISTE GILLINS: We have been celebrating it for so long. And now it's national. And we don't quite own it like we used to.

BURNETT: What Black Galvestonians would like to see is an acknowledgement of their firsts on the island - the oldest Black Baptist church and the oldest AME church in Texas, the first public high school for Black Americans in Texas, the home of Jack Johnson, the legendary Galveston giant who became boxing's first African American world heavyweight champion. The list goes on.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) We don't talk about Bruno.

BURNETT: The summer camp at Fanfare Lutheran Music Academy is in full swing. The director of the academy is June Collins Pulliam, whose family has been in Galveston since 1865. Her great-great-grandparents, Horace and Emily Scull, were enslaved to a family named Scull on nearby Bolivar Peninsula.

JUNE COLLINS PULLIAM: My great-great-grandparents and their young children were directly impacted because with this announcement of General Order No. 3, they were then freed and able to make lives for themselves here in Galveston.

BURNETT: As a freedman, Horace Scull became a skilled and sought-after carpenter. He built his own house and the houses of other emancipated people in Galveston. The Scull name is a foundational family in Galveston. The surname is etched in church cornerstones and written in school faculty rosters. Pulliam's great-grandfather, R.A. Scull, was the first African American from Galveston to get a teaching degree. He went to Wilberforce University, returned to the island and taught at a segregated school for 52 years. Juneteenth, she says, has come to signify so much to Black Americans.

PULLIAM: But, you know, even more so, I think, to those of us who are right here in Galveston, where it happened and for whom it's very personal, it's something I treasure. It's something I'm just glad that now the world recognizes it.

BURNETT: For a long time, visitors have flocked to this languid barrier island to splash in the warm waters of the Gulf, to take in the graceful 19th century architecture, to eat oysters and stroll on the seawall. With the new federal holiday, the city hopes it will also become a must-visit site of essential American history. Again, Juneteenth ambassador Sam Collins.

COLLINS: So you can read about Juneteenth. You can watch a documentary about Juneteenth. But if you really want to be immersed in the story, you have to visit Galveston, Texas, and the sites associated with the events of that day, June 19, 1865.

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, Galveston, Texas.

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