AUSTIN, TEX. -- Once in a rare while, time, history and culture conspire to provide a ritual event with transcendent feeling and symbolism. That happened yesterday on the bruised and scorching streets of east Austin, where most of this city's black residents live.
The occasion was Juneteenth Day, marking the day in June 1865 when slaves in Texas first learned -- more than two years later than most other Americans -- that they had been freed. This was the 125th Juneteenth Day in Austin but, according to many participants, unlike any that came before and likely to set the tone for those that follow.
There were outward signs that something special was going on. All along the parade route from Martin Luther King Avenue to Chicon Street to Rosewood Park Pavillion, crowds were 20 and 25 deep on sidewalks and lawns, at least triple the numbers of previous years, according to police. Thousands of people waved black, red and green flags of African unity and wore T-shirts saying "Black by Popular Demand" and newly stenciled shirts that showed two black fists in broken chains and proclaimed "Juneteenth Day: A Celebration of Freedom."
But along with the sights and sounds of celebration came a palpable feeling of exhilaration and purpose. Some attributed it to the nationwide resurgence of black cultural pride. Others said it was as though the streets of Austin were graced by the freedom spirit of Nelson Mandela on the eve of his historic visit to the United States.
Whatever the case, it was apparent that Juneteenth Day was not just another holiday, more than just another excuse to take the day off and eat barbecue, watch baton twirlers and bands and beauty queens and cowboys on parade, listen to blues and rap music. The day had been transformed into a yearly anniversary of deep cultural meaning.
"We celebrate it naturally as a day of freedom," said Eartha Colson, a cochair of the celebration. "But it has gone beyond that to become a true statement of our understanding and pride in African-American culture. This is how far we have come, we are saying. It is a time to stick our chests out."
Colson said there were signs that blacks in other parts of the country also were adopting Juneteenth Day as their own. Cities as diverse and distant as Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Charlotte were among those holding parades and picnics yesterday to mark what once had been an event limited largely to Texans and some blacks in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Once predominantly the domain of older citizens -- initially former slaves, then the sons and daughters of slaves, then the grandsons and granddaughters of slaves -- Juneteenth this year was embraced by black teenagers who cannot name any ancestral slaves but understand the modern meaning of slavery and freedom.
"I think this might be the most significant holiday we have," said Kevin Johnson, 16, a junior at the science school of LBJ High School in Austin, sitting in the back of a flatbed truck with 30 other members of the Delteens youth service organization. "It marks the freedom from slavery of all people. If I'm free from slavery, free from serving a master, than I can fulfill all my own goals."
The history of Juneteenth, a name derived from the slang combination of June and Nineteenth, dates to June 19, 1865, when Union Gen. Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, declared U.S. sovereignty over Texas and announced the freedom of the state's 250,000 slaves by reading President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, ending, as Lincoln did, with the words: "And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God."
This was 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect Jan. 1, 1863. When Granger arrived in Texas, the Civil War had been over for 71 days, and Lincoln had been dead for 65. But Texas was the last Confederate state to yield to the Union, and word of the end of slavery and of the war was slow getting here. A legend among black Texans is that the message was sent from Washington by slow-stepping mule. Historians attribute it to the slow-moving bureaucracy.
From the 1870s through World War II, blacks treated Juneteenth as a major holiday in Galveston, Houston, Austin, Navasota, El Paso and Dallas, among other cities. But year by year from 1945 to 1975, the celebration diminished. During the civil rights era, many blacks dismissed Juneteenth, saying it was a reminder of past repression and submissiveness.
A 1960 headline in the Austin paper read: "Juneteenth is Dead." The story began: "The anniversary is still on the calendar, but the spirit is gone." Austinite J. Mason Brewer, in a double-edged poem that year, wrote:
Ain't no more Juneteenth
Like it used to be;
When Abe Lincoln writ a letter
Settin all the black folks free.
Ain't no more big picnics,
By the riverside,
Where we sang 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot'
'Til we all broke down and cried.
The revival of Juneteenth began in 1979 when state Rep. Al Edwards of Houston steered a bill through the Texas legislature declaring June 19 an offical state holiday. The crowds in Austin have grown nearly every year over the last decade, according to parade marshal Lee Dawson.
"This thing has really caught on now," said Dawson, standing under the broiling sun on a 94-degree day as the two-hour parade was about to begin. "It's going across the country, and I think pretty soon it will be national. It has a new meaning now. It has doesn't have the old connotations. It's a celebration of freedom in every sense of the word."