Saturday, June 19, 2010

Black Butterflies: Juneteenth, Galveston Style

A guest post by Mesha Thomas

I remember riding and waving as a fresh-faced teen, Queen Elizabeth-style, with my fellow young hopeful peers in the back of a pink-and-green streamer adorned truck turned parade float.  We were the Pearlettes, and we were mentored by the local chapter of a historically black sorority.  We were one of many contingents along the route.  Several local school bands dotted the parade, giving this proud snake winding through the streets of Galveston its brassy and booming voice, the searing heat rising up from the asphalt.  Our Grand Marshall was often the mayor, who sat atop a car with its convertible top down.  Other city officials and business owners of all backgrounds and races from Galveston were featured atop or within fancy cars in the parade as well.

At the end of our route, a community-wide picnic awaited at Menard Park on 28th Street and the Seawall—on the waterfront, in the center of the Galveston Island beachfront.  Tapping our feet to live blues, jazz, or gospel acts performing on the outdoor stage, we shared heavy, buckling aluminum platters of all varieties of BBQ chicken, brisket, ribs.  Not to mention the accompanying pasta and potato salads, deviled eggs, green salads, casseroles, pound cakes, and various pies.  In addition to that, there were mounds of whatever seafood was in season: often crabs caught on the jetty or shrimp from the wharf, caught and boiled that morning with plenty of potatoes and corn . . . . all of it highly seasoned and cooked in the same giant pot.  Families visited each other’s picnic areas, exchanging food on paper plates that could never handle their loads.  Something else cozy and intangible used to happen . . . I felt like we were all one big family. 

It’s that time of year where I daydream about Juneteenth, which some call Emancipation Day.  To me, the old “it takes a village” adage was demonstrated during these Juneteenth celebrations in Galveston more than any other time of year.  With its roots in Texas, Juneteenth has over time grown in popularity across the Gulf Coast and the United States.  Now officially observed in 26 states, Juneteenth, in my opinion, is the most significant and uniquely historical event originating from the Houston-Galveston area.  Juneteenth (from June and nineteenth) began on June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger read General Order No. 3 in Galveston proclaiming "all slaves are free."  Galveston, largely due to its geographic location, received this critical information more than two months after the end of the Civil War.  Juneteenth is honored by many in similar ways as July 4th – with parades, pageants, family gatherings, picnics, religious observations, and live music . . . all to celebrate freedom and commemorate the abolition of slavery in Texas.

When I was growing up, if Juneteenth fell on a week-day, African Americans typically took the day off work to participate in the festivities.  The celebrations in and around Galveston are a large part of my memories of summertime youth, and of coming of age as a young woman in the South.  The pageants in particular were highly anticipated and thoroughly dissected and discussed for weeks or even years after.  The Juneteenth pageant was in many ways our version of homecoming or a prom-queen parade.  However, our “it girls” wouldn’t win this pageant on popularity alone.  The required wardrobe, congeniality, and even reputation in the community were considered amongst the judges.  The judges were local and highly respected African-American educators, school board members, church pastors, and well-known musicians . . . . considered the VIPs of our community.

I think back with a grin on the talent segment of the program.  It was closely scrutinized; and over the years various versions of inspirational songs like “The Greatest Love of All” were sung.  I could count on a sassy reading of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” as well as some young lithe contestant leaping across the stage in interpretive dance to the Deniece Williams song “Black Butterfly.”

I live in a large metropolis now, Los Angeles.  I’m quite sure there are Juneteenth celebrations here.  I hear about concerts and picnics in Inglewood, Compton, and Long Beach on the radio.  My roots are not here, and I’m not connected to any of the families, groups or neighborhoods that are likely to be celebrating Juneteenth, so I (admittedly passively) don’t participate.  I struggle with this because in a country where so many of our traditions and heritage as African-Americans are falling by the wayside, I sometimes wonder, how long will the Juneteenth traditions and celebrations survive?  This year, like most of my adult years away from Galveston, I will light a candle in honor and observance of my ancestors and think back on my days along the parade route in Galveston . . . and smile.


Mesha and Priscilla were high school classmates in Galveston, Texas.  Mesha’s writing on cultural happenings in Los Angeles can be found at


If you wish to read more on Juneteenth, here are some resource:

1 comment:

  1. So interesting. I've never heard of Juneteenth. Thanks for opening a window onto your world for us.


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