Hundreds of members of the Brazos Valley’s African American community celebrated Juneteenth early this weekend with a parade Saturday morning in central Bryan and family-friendly activities during the afternoon at Sadie Thomas Park.
Families settled in for 3 miles up and down Martin Luther King Jr. Street in Bryan, sitting in lawn chairs outside homes and businesses or on porch steps. They waved and clapped for the passing horseback riders, floats, dance teams, banners, classic cars and Bryan city utility vehicles. The Brazos Valley African American Historical Society organized this parade in cooperation with numerous local entities as a means not just to remember the historical facts of Juneteenth, but to celebrate what that victory means to Americans today, organizers said.
“For me, Juneteenth represents freedom as we are coming together in communion, remembering how it was in the olden days when people gathered to celebrate,” said Donna Pittman, a Bryan school teacher who helped event leaders judge parade participants. “... You have the older crowd who know exactly what Juneteenth means, and the younger crowd who know some of the history. And the children coming up, we’re trying to teach them what it means.”
On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in states then in rebellion against the United States. Southern states including Texas, though, were slow to give them their freedom. On June 19, 1865, Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston with nearly 2,000 U.S. troops and read an official order declaring that Texas slaves were to be considered free. Though the break from slavery didn’t transpire overnight for Texans, this event became a symbol of freedom both for Texans and African American communities across the United States.
The ways in which people observe Juneteenth may have changed somewhat since the late 1800s. For many participants in Saturday’s festivities in Bryan, jubilee materialized through energetic hip hop dancing. Several youth dance teams hopped and stomped down the parade route in tandem, then joined together on the basketball courts of Sadie Thomas Park afterwards. Event hosts carefully judged each dance team based off 10 criteria and awarded trophies to the most precise, creative and energetic groups.
Takayius Brown of Bryan was excited when the youth dance team she coaches, the “Destructive Divas,” won second place, especially considering the team had only formed in early spring. Brown teaches hip hop and jazz dance lessons to young girls in the Bryan-College Station community, and for the past few months the eight teenagers on her dance team have been practicing on a daily basis for this Juneteenth parade.
“I love dance, because it keeps the girls out of trouble, off the streets,” she said. “And the girls can express themselves through dance. My heart is on the floor, and I love pleasing the crowd. ... I instill in every practice that the girls should think about who they are. And I [teach] them how to be proud of themselves. At the end of the routines, we’ll throw something out there to remind them why they should be proud.
“For Juneteenth, I have each girl say something that makes them proud of themselves, like ‘I am black, strong and beautiful.’ ”
One special guest at Sadie Thomas Park this weekend was former college football player and professional motivational speaker Germard Reed Jr. of Houston. Reed shared a few words with the crowd, speaking about his desire for everyone to take care of each other, and to put the needs of the community before his or her own. Reed said this was his first time visiting Bryan, and he was touched by the atmosphere of closeness between those in attendance.
“Bryan seems like a place where [the city] can continue to grow as everybody keeps coming together.” Reed said, “It is amazing to have everyone come together for a great cause, and issues we still fight to get past.”
Reed said it can be easy for people today to neglect the gravity preceding Juneteenth, and what American generations past had to endure to make the freedoms enjoyed today possible.
“We always take for granted the things we didn’t do ourselves,” he said. “When something is just given to you, you don’t really care for it. If people today understood the work it took to get to this situation, I think [days such as Juneteenth] would have more meaning to them.”
Pittman noted that although she feels the new generation of African American young people are becoming more familiar with their roots, there is still a lack of knowledge of the significance of events such as Juneteenth. Such holidays’ history is not always taught in schools, she said, and older family members who still pass down the stories of Juneteenth are becoming rarer. Still, Pittman said she was pleased with the thriving attendance to the parade and subsequent park event this year.
“For me, this brings back memories of why we celebrate history,” Pittman said. “We are claiming it and celebrating it.”