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Juneteenth Carriages Celebrated Freedom

Juneteenth carriages were grand affairs. While each town had its unique take on Emancipation festivities, these photos from Texas in the early 1900s showcase a special tradition of buggies, carts and wagons elaborately decorated with flowers. Passengers donned their best outfits to ride in community celebrations.

Since 1865, June 19th has been the annual Day of Jubilee marking the end of slavery in America. While the official date was marked with the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the news was not heard in Texas until June 19, 1865. Celebrations broke out spontaneously and the day became a yearly event.

Why Did It Take So Long For The Word To Spread?

Although slavery was declared illegal in 1865, the process of freeing slaves was complex. According to the Library of Congress, as long as the Civil War continued, confederate states resisted freedom for slaves.

“The Proclamation only applied to states “in rebellion against the United States,” so states that were still part of the Union where slaves were held could act to free slaves or not, depending upon the will of state legislators and voters. It did signal that the end of legal slavery was nearing, but there was great variation on how states responded.”

In his book Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, historian Leon Litwack writes that slave owners in Mississippi and other states began migrating west as Confederate cities fell to Union troops. They moved more than 150,000 slaves with them. He quotes a former slave who said, “It looked like everybody in the world was going to Texas.”

When the Civil War ended in 1865, Union troops undertook the difficult task of reclaiming Confederate states. As they did, they announced emancipation of all enslaved people. Union General Gordon Granger and his troops finally arrived in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. General Granger read aloud the order No. 3 to the crowd gathered at Ashton Villa.

Head Quarters District of Texas

Galveston Texas June 19th 1865.

General Orders, No. 3.

          The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

               The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

By order of Major General Granger

F.W. Emery

Major A.A. Genl.

But Granger’s news did not immediately reach the 250,000 people enslaved across Texas. Plantation owners could decide when to deliver the news to their slaves. They frequently waited until after the next harvest.

The Slave Narratives Of Texas And The Big Break Up

Some memories of the first days of freedom are included in The Slave Narratives of Texas (1974). Interviews were conducted from the mid- to late-1930s. They resulted in four typewritten volumes are located in the Rare Book Collection of the Library of Congress Federal Writers’ Project, Slave Narratives, A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.

The mission was to bear witness in the personal stories of the slavery. One former slave, John Little, in Drew, says, “Tisn’t he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is, — ‘tis he who has endured.” (p. 142)

According to the Library of Congress, one of the most memorable interviews was from Wallace Quarterman from Skidaway Island, Georgia recalling the day he became free. It happened shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863. He was interviewed in 1935. Quarterman was 19 when he was freed. In his recording, he describes how many of the newly freed people refused to work for pay on their plantations. Instead, they chose to go free. “So we had a big, big breaking up right there,”  Quarterman said.

The end of slavery in the South was often called “The Big Break Up” or The Scattering.”

Many of the newly freed people headed west, some as far as California, to build successful lives. One such story is that of Abby Fisher who was born into slavery in 1830. She honed her culinary skills on plantations and later built a highly successful catering and pickling business in San Francisco. She eventually published What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking, one of the first cookbooks written by an African American woman.

Celebrations Erupted Across Texas As News Spread

According to the Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas,

“The tidings of freedom reached the approximately 250,000 slaves in Texas gradually as individual plantation owners informed their slaves over the months following the end of the war. The news elicited an array of personal celebrations…”

Eventually Juneteenth was widely celebrated with picnics, barbecues, family reunions, dramatic readings, educational lectures, pageants, and parades. In the early 1900s, some towns included these festive Juneteenth Carriages.

Yates Purchased Land For Juneteenth Celebrations

Like so many former slaves who set out to build highly successful lives, Reverend John Henry Yates (1828–1897) moved with his family to Houston in June of 1865. He became a drayman by day and a Baptist preacher at night and on Sundays. In 1866 he became pastor of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, the first Black Baptist church in Houston.

In 1869 Yates bought several lots and became a homeowner. He was instrumental in organizing the first Baptist association for Blacks in Houston, and the Old Land Mark Association, which exists today. He also organized Houston Academy for Black children in 1885.

According to Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Tex many of the early emancipation festivities were relegated by city authorities to the outskirts of town. Under Yates’ leadership, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church and Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church purchased Emancipation Park on Dowling Street for the black Americans of Houston in 1872.

This group photograph was taken at a Juneteenth Celebration in Emancipation Park in Houston’s Fourth Ward. Reverend Jack Yates is pictured on the left and Sallie Yates is pictured in the center toward the front in black.

Other groups of African Americans collected funds to purchase their own land for celebrations including Juneteenth.

Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas:

“In Houston, for instance, a deed for a ten-acre site was signed in 1872, and in Austin the Travis County Emancipation Celebration Association acquired land for its Emancipation Park in the early 1900s; the Juneteenth event was later moved to Rosewood Park. In Limestone County the Nineteenth of June Association acquired thirty acres, which has since been reduced to twenty acres by the rising of Lake Mexia.”

The Yates Family Decorated Juneteenth Carriages

In this 1908 photo, Martha, Yates’s oldest child, and Pinkie Yates drive Juneteenth Carriages in front of the Antioch Baptist Church, Fourth Ward, Houston, Texas.

Where did the tradition begin? While we have not found an account of how these Juneteenth Carriages got started, floral parades were fashionable in Spain and Mexico. In 1891 The San Antonio Battle Of Flowers Parade was launched after a San Antonio citizen had seen a flower parade in Nice, France. 

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