In the early 1800s, privateers and smugglers who were involved in the slave trade periodically used Galveston Island as an outpost for operations. The sandy barrier island in what is now Texas appealed to smugglers because of its proximity to Caribbean slave-trading islands, its natural harbor, and the abundance of streams and rivers that could serve as hiding places.
By 1860, about one-third of Galveston’s population lived under the oppression of chattel slavery. Even after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, in the midst of America’s Civil War, change came slowly to Galveston. Most enslaved people were unaware of Lincoln’s executive order, and the practice of buying and selling Black people based on race continued in Galveston and other parts of Texas until well into 1865. As long as the Confederate Army still held power in the region, there was no way to enforce Lincoln’s order.
Circumstances changed in April 1865 with the arrival of U.S. Major General Gordon Granger and 2,000 Union troops. On June 19, 1865, Granger issued General Order No. 3 and Union troops marched through Galveston and read the order aloud at several locations, including Union Army headquarters at the Osterman building.
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” the order stated. “This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”
As news of the order spread, spontaneous celebrations broke out in African-American churches, homes, and other gathering places. As years passed, the picnics, barbecues, parades, and other celebrations that sprang up to commemorate June 19th became more formalized as freed men and women purchased land, or “emancipation grounds,” to hold annual Juneteenth celebrations.
The location of one of these areas—Emancipation Park in Houston—is marked in the astronaut photograph above. Reverend Jack Yates, a Baptist minister and former slave, worked with his congregation and other leaders to pool money to buy the land as a site for Juneteenth celebrations in 1872. The city of Galveston and the sediment-rich waters of Galveston Bay appear on the right side of the image.
The Texas legislature formally recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday in 1980. Dozens of other states also began to recognize the holiday in the following decades. On June 17, 2021, the U.S. Congress passed and the President signed a law declaring Juneteenth to be a federal holiday. The holiday is sometimes also called Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Juneteenth Independence Day, and Black Independence Day.
Astronaut photographs ISS062-E-61896 and ISS055-E-110079 acquired on February 27, 2020 and April 16, 2019, with a Nikon D4 digital camera using 400 and 110 millimeter lenses and are provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center. The first image was taken by a member of the Expedition 62 crew. The second image was taken by a member of the Expedition 55 crew.The image has been cropped and enhanced to improve contrast, and lens artifacts have been removed. The International Space Station Program supports the laboratory as part of the ISS National Lab to help astronauts take pictures of Earth that will be of the greatest value to scientists and the public, and to make those images freely available on the Internet. Additional images taken by astronauts and cosmonauts can be viewed at the NASA/JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. Story by Adam Voiland.