WASHINGTON: A Black Catholic Texan’s perspective on Juneteenth

June 13, 2023

A person in Galveston, Texas, waves a flag during an emancipation march June 19, 2022, as people gather to celebrate Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in Texas, two years after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves elsewhere in the United States. (CNS photo/Callaghan O'Hare, Reuters)

On June 19, 1865, in Galveston, General Gordon Granger announced to all the slaves of Texas that they were free. Even though President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, the word of that “freedom” took almost 2½ years to reach Texas. General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, and that word would still be unknown to my people for two more months.

Starting in 1866, Juneteenth, a word that combined the words “June” and “nineteenth,” became a day of celebration for former slaves and their descendants all throughout Texas to commemorate this auspicious event. As a person who is a descendant of those slaves who were freed, I can personally attest that Juneteenth is not just a secular holiday in Texas.

In my small Texas town, it was a weekend-long celebration that was often sponsored by the church. When freedom was first granted to our people, the only safe place we had to celebrate God’s gracious deliverance was in the Lord’s House. Many times, this day of celebration included a Church service with the singing of spirituals, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” games, educational activities, good food and fun.

I remember as a child, I remember looking forward to the end of the school year because summer brought Memorial Day, 4th of July, and most importantly, Juneteenth. I recall my grandmother and great-aunt going grocery shopping in the week leading up to June 19. They would buy ribs, chicken, brisket, ground beef, hot dogs, corn on the cob, baked beans, greens, Blue Bell ice cream, watermelons, and it seemed like hundreds of popsicles for us kids to enjoy.

These annual celebrations instilled in me pride in my history and my faith. Slavery was one of the darkest times in our nation’s history, but Africans and their Black American offspring persevered and shaped this country. Through our families being torn apart and sold to parts unknown, never to be seen again, being beaten to within an inch of their lives, and forced to eat foods that were deemed inedible, we kept our faith in God and knew that He would be the source of our deliverance. When one year ran into the other, then a decade into a decade, generation after generation, my ancestors never gave up.

When the news of their freedom came, I believe they immediately thanked God. They trusted in God’s grace and mercy to see their children through to freedom and were rewarded for their faithfulness.

Throughout our history, be it the experience of slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, segregation and the Civil Rights movement, Black people have relied on their faith to see them forward. Many of our faith leaders have been at the forefront of our movement. Men of faith like Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, Reverend William Lawson, or the late Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza.

Our pastors were not only in the pulpits preaching each Sunday about change and equality, but they were also in the streets marching Monday through Saturday. They knew that if they sat idly by and offered thoughts and prayers, change would not come.

Catholic schools in Houston were the first private schools to integrate. The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston recognized there was an injustice among our schools and fixed it even before it was popular.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that was a plea for a change of heart by white clergy and black advocates of violence and, while I was not there, I like to believe this plea was heralded by our Archdiocesan leaders.

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage, where the grapes of wrath are stored; He has loos’d the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword; His truth is marching on.”

I like to believe that when abolitionist writer Julia Ward Howe wrote these words and saw them published in 1862, she knew in her heart that the descendant of African slaves in Texas would sing this song one day with pride. 

Cherie Wade Washington is a middle school catechist and youth minister at St. Mary of the Purification Catholic Church.