Dr. David Williams remembers the Juneteenth celebrations of his youth — the early morning worship service, the wonderful food, the games, the music.
And Tuesday, at the Adams Street Community Center where Williams was to be the speaker for the Juneteenth celebration, he looked out over the nearly 100 seated for the banquet and smiled a big smile.
“This is the way it should be,” Williams said. “This community has done a magnificent job of involving young people — not only African Americans but all races — and celebrating the freedoms we all enjoy.”
Williams, 82, is a former history professor at Howard Payne and taught social studies for 22 years before retiring in 1989. He is now executive director of the Southwest African-American Heritage Organization.
In an interview prior to the banquet, Williams said he planned to talk about the slavery situation, briefly, and the process for emancipating the slaves in Texas.
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. Though President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation and it had become official Jan. 1, 1863, the news of its signing didn’t reach Texas for another two and a half years, when on June 19, 1865, Major Gen. Gordon Granger landed at Galveston and announced from a hotel balcony the war had ended, that slaves were free.
“Lots of rumors are out there for the reason as to why it took so long for the news to get to Texas,” Williams said. “But the main reason was the Texas Legislature, that didn’t want to recognize the fact that slaves were freed. That would have been a big problem for the Texas economy, that depended on cotton.
“Since the legislature was so slow and deliberate,” Williams said, “the slave owners were encouraged to also drag their feet or completely ignore the Emancipation Proclamation.”
The evolving theme of the modern day Juneteenth celebrations is “from slavery to freedom,” a phrase Williams said adopted from the title of a book by John Hope Franklin. Franklin also wrote “The Militant South.”
“This has been a long and slow process,” Williams said. “But the fight for civil rights is practically over. There’s a little clean up.
“I grew up seeing signs, ‘Whites Only’, or ‘No Negroes,’” Williams said. “I was living in San Angelo, and the signs were there, at Kresge’s, I told them about it and wrote the main office in Atlanta. I might have made a phone call, but when they started to take it down, they called me to come watch. That was the last sign in San Angelo.”
Juneteenth is a celebration for how far black Americans have come since the days of slavery, and since the turbulent fights for civil rights a century later.
“But we celebrate,” Williams said, “because freedom is something to be celebrated, and because we should never forget that it came at a price. It came with a struggle.”