For many Americans, the addition of Juneteenth as a national holiday last year became an opportunity to learn another layer of our country’s diverse history. To really appreciate the holiday, visit Galveston, Texas – the birthplace of Juneteenth.
Just an hour south of Houston on I-45, Galveston is both an island and a city. The island is 27 miles long and up to three miles wide in places. And the beaches are magnificent.
The city, known for its extensive plantings of oleander and an enthusiastic celebration of Mardi Gras, has a population of about 50,000.
It was here in June 1865 that General Gordon Granger and 25,000 Union troops arrived from New Orleans. On June 19th, at the corner of 22nd and the Strand, he issued Executive Order No. 3 informing the people of Texas that all enslaved people of the Lone Star State were now free.
It was nearly three years after Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the Civil War had ended. It was the last state in which freedom and “absolute equality” were declared for enslaved people.
“The Black people on the island chose this date as their freedom date and celebrated it annually for generations,” said Samuel Collins, III, a historian and certified tourism ambassador for Galveston. “As they moved off the island and around the country, they took Juneteenth celebrations with them.”
Today on the spot where General Granger issued the order is a massive mural — 126 ft long and 38 ft tall — called “Absolute Equality.” Hold your iPhone up to one of the six rings in the mural to activate a video that details each period or person depicted there.
Step inside the building, home to the Juneteenth Legacy Project and Nia Cultural Center. “Nia” means “purpose” in Swahili. The center includes a thought-provoking exhibit by Houston artist Ted Ellis that documents the African American journey to freedom in Texas.
Pick up a brochure for the tour, “Galveston Freedom Walk,” that highlights five stops significant to the Juneteenth experience in Galveston. Learn more at Juneteenthbirthplace.org.
While Juneteenth is significant to the Galveston experience, the city has much more to offer in history, culture, food, and overall good times. This is an island, so the Gulf of Mexico lords over every aspect of life here.
The Galveston Sea Wall is 10 miles long and 17 feet high, doing its best to separate the people and places of Galveston from the water beyond. It came about after a hurricane in 1900 that killed 6,000 people and nearly wiped the island off the map. In a masterful feat of civil engineering, they simply raised the island about 10 feet, thus minimizing impact from future storms.
The result is a 10-mile-long sidewalk with the Gulf of Mexico and beaches on one side and a huge selection of amazing restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues on the other. Pleasure Pier has a Ferris wheel and other carnival-type rides that spin you out over the water until you want to scream. Make sure you plan a meal, or at least dessert, at Gaido’s. It’s been here since 1911 and has absolutely the biggest and best pecan pie you’ll ever eat in your life.
Plan on breakfast one morning at the Star Drug Store. It’s been here since 1909 and besides a good omelet, it’s just a funky place to hang out. Look for the high water mark on the back wall from Hurricane Ida.
At one point, Galveston was the largest immigration point in the U.S., just behind Ellis Island. It’s a fascinating story told in the new Ship to Shore Museum, where you become a passenger on a ship hoping to enter the U.S. Whether you become a U.S. citizen or not depends on so many factors completely out of your control.
The Galveston Railroad Museum includes the largest collection of railroad china in the country. Another train car is a bed and breakfast, so you can spend the night without going anywhere.
There are so many great places you can choose to spend the night in Galveston. The Grand Galvez is one of those historic, classic hotels and is right on the water. But if you want to stay downtown, check out the Tremont House. It, too, is a historic hotel that some say is haunted. But it has a spectacular rooftop bar.
If flying, choose flights into Houston Hobby. It’s much closer to Galveston. If driving, it’s about 13 hours.
For more information, visit visitgalveston.com