Celebrating Juneteenth in Galveston
Sharon Batiste Gillins is a genealogist and member of Reedy Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Galveston, Texas. She spoke with Sojourners' Betsy Shirley.
REEDY CHAPEL WAS founded in 1848 and became a place for enslaved Africans to worship in dignity. On June 19, 1865, when federal troops came to Galveston to enforce emancipation, Reedy Chapel was one of the first places that announcement of freedom was made. We don’t have the documentary evidence of this, but legend says that they nailed the announcement to the front door of the church.
Later, Reedy Chapel became the location of the first citywide celebration of emancipation. On Juneteenth, we reenact that first celebration. We march from the old Galveston courthouse to Reedy Chapel, ringing bells and passing out flyers saying, “All slaves are free!” It’s a jubilant mood. We’re singing “Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave,” we’re holding hands, we’re praising God. As we cross the main street, we hear the African drummers at the corner of the church, and they just revive us even more.
At the church, the Galveston Heritage Chorale sings these beautiful traditional songs. We read an abridged version of the Emancipation Proclamation. We give thanks in prayer. And we have an inspirational speaker talk about history or something related to Juneteenth so that we’re not just celebrating for the sake of celebration, but we’re also celebrating to make sure that the history lives on.
I’m descended from people who were enslaved in this country, and it would have taken quite a bit of faith in God for them to hold on until they were free. And they obviously did hold on, because I’m here.