On June 19, 1865, enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, heard the news of their freedom. More than two years earlier, President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation to establish the freedom of enslaved people in Confederate States on January 1, 1863. More than two months prior, on April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered. Still, many Black people remained enslaved, including approximately 250,000 in Texas. The state offered a haven to many white enslavers since no major battles occurred there throughout the Civil War, and enslavers refused to inform enslaved people of their freedom. Yet on Juneteenth in 1865—the day’s name a combination of “June” and “nineteenth”—Union troops arrived in Galveston, bringing news of the emancipation established in January 1863. There, General Gordon Granger issued General Order 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.”
Organized by freed Black people in Texas the following year, celebrations of Jubilee Day occurred throughout the state, including Waco. The earliest documented Waco celebration occurred in 1876, which included a two-thousand-person procession led by the Waco Colored Band and local societies, including the Rising Stars and the Young Men’s Club. The groups waved bright-colored banners and wore dazzling uniforms. The parade ended at Waco Creek, in the southern part of the city, where celebrants listened to various speakers and a reading of the Declaration of Independence. Afterward, they danced, sang, and ate together.
Later, in 1913, Black Wacoans organized a celebration at Taborian Park, which included outdoor sports, a picnic, amusement rides, and a balloon release. In the following years, events also included free barbecue, religious services, pageants, softball games, and bicycle races. For Black airmen on James Connally Air Force Base, Juneteenth celebrations included a dance at the Franklin Avenue USO and sporting events at the Elizabeth Lee Center on South Tenth Street. Black employees in Waco also requested the day off from work, and in 1933, Bridge Street, which housed many local Black businesses, closed for part of the day as the community gathered there for a celebratory parade.
Juneteenth celebrations in Waco continued to grow over time. In 1946, the Chicago American Giants and the Memphis Red Sox, both part of the Negro American League, kicked off Juneteenth events at Katy Park, attracting over three thousand fans. These festivities also included broader activist efforts across Texas as Black leaders requested pardons for Black prisoners in the state. As early as June 19, 1925, the governor of Texas granted pardons to forty-five Black prisoners in response to the emancipation celebration day. Later, members of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus advocated for state recognition of the Juneteenth holiday. On June 19, 1979, the bill proposed by Representative Al Edwards of Houston passed, making Texas the first state to establish Juneteenth as a holiday.
Despite this acknowledgement, events that occurred on Juneteenth sometimes highlighted the complex legacies of emancipation. In Limestone County, the town of Mexia regularly hosted one of the largest Juneteenth celebrations in the country, often drawing over twenty thousand people. Those crowds dwindled after 1981, when three young Black men drowned after law enforcement arrested them during celebrations near what locals referred to as Comanche Crossing. Officers crossed Lake Mexia without providing life preservers to Anthony Freeman (18), Carl Baker (19), or Steven Booker (19). The boat began to sink twenty yards from shore, and the three teenagers, two of whom could swim, drowned. The three officers survived, and an all-white jury found them not guilty. The three teenagers’ tragic deaths struck the community hard and impacted Juneteenth celebrations, which now correspond with collective mourning and remembrance of the “Comanche Three.” While Juneteenth remains a celebration of liberation across Texas, such events left many pondering the limits of freedom and justice.
Still, as they did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Juneteenth celebrations persist in the state and locally in Waco. Juneteenth events include sports competitions, red soda—including Waco’s own Big Red—carnival events, beauty pageants, gospel music performances, and a community-wide parade. Local organizations, including The Heart of Texas Black Chamber of Commerce and the Waco Council of African American Arts, Health & Culture, help coordinate activities throughout the city. These events that occur in Waco and throughout Texas also happen across the country as Americans celebrate emancipation. On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed a bill establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Black Americans, though, have acknowledged and celebrated Juneteenth since 1865. Rejoicing in liberation, Black Wacoans, Texans, and Americans celebrate Juneteenth and recognize still the strides left toward freedom.