Even though it is the birthplace of Juneteenth, in recognition of June 19, 1865, the day enslaved people were freed in Texas — 2 ½ years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation — many still doubt Texas’s Southern identity.
When I was a kid, white teachers talked about slavery as happening somewhere far away, in places like Mississippi, where they said the white people were backward, uneducated and truly guilty of the crime of slavery.
The image of Texas that typically gets exported to the rest of the country and the world is that of the Old West: cowboys, rodeos, longhorn steer. The state’s tourism board emphasizes that experience.
“There’s no doubt about it. Texas continues to lean on its perceived Western identity and really seeks to evade its Southern identity as much as possible, at least in the public face that Texas tries to show the rest of the world,” said Gregg Cantrell, Texas history professor at Texas Christian University.
“It really excludes people of color from feeling like they belong,” he said of Texas’s white-male, Western-frontier narrative. “I think that’s been one of the many sources of racial and ethnic tension in Texas over the years.”
But that Southern history may soon be on display in a big way. An Emancipation National Historic Trail from Galveston to Houston is now in the works, honoring the 1865 announcement of the end of legal slavery in Texas. Upon hearing the news, newly freed people celebrated, and that became the basis for Juneteenth, which is recognized not just in this country but internationally as well. Juneteenth has been a state holiday since 1980 and marked in other ways since 1866.
“In some ways, Juneteenth is the most successful example of an alternative history of Texas that cuts against the white, frontier, triumphalist narrative,” said Cantrell.
The Emancipation Trail will be affiliated with the National Park Service and will run 51 miles from Galveston to Houston to retrace the route along which families traveled to help spread the news of emancipation throughout the state. This kind of public reckoning could help us move toward truth and reconciliation. The more we understand the enduring legacy of slavery, the better we will understand why police brutality and systemic racism persist in Texas and nationwide, and then we can take more informed steps toward addressing racial inequities.
The Emancipation Trail could be Texas’s monument to truth and reconciliation, much like the Equal Justice Initiative’s memorial to victims of lynching that opened in 2018 in Montgomery, Ala.
“There’s a lot of miseducation with regard to Texas history, beginning with the 1836 secession from Mexico, which was driven in no small measure by the desire to maintain slavery,” said Gerald Horne, professor of history and African American studies at the University of Houston.
“It all starts right there in terms of mythology, sweeping under the rug the slavery roots of modern Texas.”
The Texas centennial celebrations happened in 1936 — some 100 years after the founding of the short-lived independent Republic of Texas. These celebrations had the feel of a world’s fair and were an opportunity to advertise the state for business and tourism purposes. Some argue that the celebrations highlighted Western branding so Texas could start publicly distancing itself from the South.
Growing up, I did not realize my state participated in slavery and Jim Crow on a scale similar to the rest of the South, not minimally or negligibly as I had been taught. By 1860, more than 30 percent of Texas’s population was enslaved. The Equal Justice Initiative has confirmed 338 lynchings in Texas between 1877 and 1950. I was in high school when James Byrd Jr. was dragged to death behind a truck in 1998, a modern-day lynching, precisely the kind of horror we would rather believe did not happen in our backyard.
My social studies classes glossed over the Great Migration, the 20th-century exodus of 6 million black people from the South, in which Texas played a major role. “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson documented the journey of a black man migrating from Louisiana to California, and when he traveled through Texas, he was still functionally in the South. He desperately tried to navigate the state’s “sundown towns,” all-white communities where black people were in danger of being lynched after dark. They also were not particularly welcome in the light of day.
I know from reporting on the black travel movement for the past four years that today, some black travelers mention the 2015 death of Sandra Bland as a reason to regard the entire state of Texas as one big sundown town.
Coming to terms with these events requires a public conversation, which the Emancipation Trail could foster. In the future, I would like to see hundreds of years of black history honored as much as that one decade from 1836 to 1845 when Texas was an independent republic. I would like to see Texas join the National Civil Rights Trail, on which it has no historic sites whatsoever. And I would like to see the Emancipation Trail become a pilgrimage for families from around the country.
Texas may in some ways be “its own thing,” and it has numerous Western traits, but Juneteenth and the Emancipation Trail remind us Texas is still the South.