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159 years later, Juneteenth's impact continues in East Texas

Juneteenth is recognized in the Black community as the country's second independence day that freed more than 250,000 slaves all over Texas.

TYLER, Texas — Editor's Note: Video above is not related to story.

Nearly 160 years later, the significance of Juneteenth is kept alive through stories, music, books, movies, and celebrations across the country especially in East Texas.

"It's important because we've been given an opportunity to reflect back on our history of yester years and where we've came from, where we are today, and where we are expecting to go in the future," Gloria Mays Washington, executive director of the Tyler-based Texas African American Museum, said.

Juneteenth is recognized in the Black community as the country's second independence day that freed more than 250,000 slaves all over Texas.

The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, which freed many slaves across the United States, but there were certain areas that were still under Confederate control and didn't allow their slaves to be free until years later.

Freedom for slaves in Texas finally arrived on June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger and the Union troops reached Galveston to announce that slavery had finally come to an end.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Littlejohn, associate professor and director of graduate studies in history at Sam Houston State University and project director of East Texas History. He has researched the history of slavery in East Texas for many years.

"It's important that it's a federal holiday because now everyone can get off of work and enjoy commemorating this crucial date in our nation's history," Littlejohn said. "It's astonishing that it took this long for the freedom of enslaved people to be recognized as a holiday because that was a major transformative event in our nation's history, the end of slavery."

Although Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, many don't know the history and the impact it holds in the Black community. 

"Most of our young people and individuals realize where we are today but they have no recognition or consideration of what happened in the past to our ancestors not just here in Tyler but in other cities and states across the country," Washington said. "Slavery not only hindered people here in Smith County but all over the United States of America. So it's important we know here in Tyler what our history is all about and how it has impacted and how it should make us dive deeper into our history so we can go further in the future."

Black history has deep roots in East Texas but many locals don't know about monumental events leading up to Juneteenth. From the Great White Panic of 1860 to Camp Ford to numerous lynching of slaves, this is a part of local history that isn't necessarily taught.

"[Many] are in downtown holding and participating in certain events but many people do not know the history behind the downtown square across from the courthouse in Tyler. How so many African Americans were lynched and hanged from trees," Washington said. "Our ancestors that were hanged by trees and we are down there celebrating many different events not knowing this part of history. And that is an atrocity that I think we all need to learn about."

Teaching of local slavery is an important part of Texas history but it is not taught enough in communities, Littlejohn said. 

"It's not just slavery they don't just teach, it's [also] racism, and discrimination," Littlejohn said. "Senate Bill 3 has made it much more difficult for teachers to teach [these subjects] and they have to be very careful on how they approach these subjects. They're hesitant to teach enslavement."

A good way to learn about local Black history is by visiting museums such as Tyler's Texas African American Museum. Since opening in 2016, this museum has told the forgotten local history of slavery and the continuing impact it has on the community.

"The museum is just a little chip off the block, there is so much more history to be put on the table not only for African Americans but other races in Smith County," Washington said. "We have impacted some but it's just a tip off the iceberg but we are expecting to do more."

Through Juneteenth and Black History Month, many learn about the contributions and impact that Black individuals in the community but learning about Black history shouldn't be limited through the year, Washington said. 

"My goal is to see [Black] history celebrated year round," Washington said. "We live year round, history is created everyday so why hold it for 11 months then exhibited for one month out of the year in February. I think we should be teaching history everyday."

As for the future of Juneteenth, both Washington and Littlejohn are hopeful this new federal holiday will continue to make an impact in communities across the country by educating about the history behind the holiday.

"I hope Juneteenth will gain the same footing that the last federal holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day had," Littlejohn said. "If these holidays are meant to be meaningful then people have to learn why they are meaningful and hold events for the public to explain to them why they are important."

 Washington added that communities should not only have parades and gatherings but also educate and teach people about slave moments. 

"How we were freed, who freed the slaves, who were instrumental in getting the slaves freed...we have to teach more in our cities on Juneteenth," Washington said. 

Juneteenth is a monumental moment in Black history in East Texas. Ancestors who have long passed away, their stories are kept alive through their family and communities, she said.

"We need to get more involved, learn, and exercise our rights what our fore parents lost their lives, were beaten, and [were] stripped for," Washington said. "We don't want that to be in vain, we have to keep that in the forefront and continue to making our society a better society in which to live."

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