On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation to free enslaved people. However, the Civil War did not officially end until April 1865, and enslaved people in the Confederate State of Texas did not hear of their freedom until June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger announced the abolition of slavery upon his arrival in Galveston, Texas. This day became known as Emancipation Day and was later called Juneteenth. Still celebrated today, it has been an official State holiday in Texas since 1980.
One of the earliest Juneteenth celebrations took place at Wheeler’s Grove, now known as Eastwoods Park located on Harris Park Avenue in Central Austin. The festivities consisted of a parade with a queen and maids of honor, drilling exhibitions by Black military companies, competitive baseball games, and addresses by speakers, sometimes African American and sometimes white. There were tables of food, and families picnicked throughout the day. In the earlier years of Juneteenth, formerly enslaved people were asked to tell their stories about life before freedom came—stories that often recalled the abominable experience of being enslaved and horrific battle scenes from the Civil War that freed them.
In 1900, Grace Murray Stephenson, a young, white woman who lived a few blocks from Wheeler’s Grove, took photographs of the Emancipation Day celebration that year. She later sold her story and photographs to the San Francisco Chronicle. Today, these photographs—some included with this story—are displayed throughout the United States as early photographic documentation of historic Juneteenth celebrations.
After the land for Emancipation Park was purchased by the Emancipation Celebration Association in 1905, the first Juneteenth (or Emancipation Day) took place here in 1906. The park was located at the present-day site of Rosewood Courts. The original spot was a five-acre park at the corner of Rosewood Avenue and Poquito Street. In 1938, the City of Austin took the Emancipation Park property to build Rosewood Courts, the first public housing development under the 1937 Housing Act, which created the United States Housing Authority. The site of Emancipation Park moved to East 12th Street, near Downs Field in the 1940s.
During the first half of the twentieth century, several Emancipation Day celebrations were held simultaneously at numerous places across the Austin area. The celebrations that took place at Emancipation Park were often attended by Black citizens with higher social status, while some Black Austinites held celebrations elsewhere. Idle Hour Park was another popular location for Juneteenth celebrations. Idle Hour Park was said to be located “northwest of Tillotson College,” but it is difficult to identify the exact location. Celebrations were also held along East Avenue, at the site of Tom Miller Dam, and other locations that were not as well documented as Emancipation Park.
When Rosewood Park formally opened in 1929, the City intended it to be a hub for Austin’s African American community social activities. Although still celebrated at Emancipation Park and other locations as well, the first known date when Rosewood Park hosted a Juneteenth celebration was in 1930. The day’s festivities started with baseball, races, a swim meet, and tennis matches. The closing celebrations featured community singing and dancing. The following year a basket picnic and live music were added to the schedule. After the City seized the land where Emancipation Park was located, Rosewood Park soon became the main location where Juneteenth is celebrated throughout Austin, and today, the park carries on this tradition annually with thousands in attendance. Although some of the festivities have changed since the original Juneteenth celebration in 1930, Rosewood Park preserves the tradition of the important celebration of Juneteenth or Emancipation Day.
Austin continues to honor Juneteenth in a similar fashion to their ancestors. This year, CarverMuseumATX is hosting Stay Black & Live (SB&L), a week-long celebration, that takes place from June 12th and 19th. This marks the third iteration of Stay Black & Live Juneteenth celebration that launched in 2020. The weekend is full of free family-oriented activities, music, games, and more. For more information on this year’s Juneteenth celebration visit Juneteenthatx.com.