It’s understandable why June 19, aka Juneteenth, would be a more important date for some Americans of African descent than July 4. Rory Hoskins, who is coordinating the Eighth Annual Juneteenth Family Pool Party on June 19th, wants Forest Park residents of all races to appreciate what happened on that day back in 1865.
The Declaration of Independence, published on July 4th, was composed by Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” but he also owned something like 200 slaves. Whereas on June 19, 1865 — a little over two months after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox — General Gordon Granger led 1,500 Union soldiers into Galveston’s town square and read Presidential Order #3, which declared that, per the Emancipation Declaration, all slaves in the former rebel states were now free.
Hoskins grew up in Galveston and experienced the Juneteenth celebration of freedom firsthand right in the city where the event began 150 years ago. He explained that the day is called “Juneteenth” because up until Presidential Order #3, it was illegal in Texas to teach a slave to read and write, a restriction that, in effect, forced them to speak a dialect other than “standard English.” Instead of calling the day the 19th of June, therefore, the newly emancipated slaves called it “Juneteenth.”
Growing up in Texas in the 1970s, Hoskins recalled, “Texas passed a law to add a Confederate Heroes Day to the state calendar of holidays. In the South they taught us that the Civil War was about states’ rights and not about slavery. That always mixed me up as a kid. In the South, they really revere their history, and the dominant group, which at the time was white, gets to write the history.”
Hoskins said he resisted that view of history because he had knowledgeable adults in his life who helped him separate fact from fiction.
“When I was a kid,” he recalled, “we went on a field trip to a museum where you could buy confederate money as a souvenir. So I came home one day and told my mom that I wanted to buy some confederate money, and she didn’t like that too much. She was a college professor in Galveston who taught sociology and anthropology and my father was a lawyer. They were educated people.”
When a Texas state legislator named Al Edwards saw that a bill passed establishing a Confederate Heroes Day, he responded by introducing a bill making the third Saturday in June an official state holiday called Juneteenth.
“We had a personal connection with Al Edwards,” said Hoskins. “He was a friend of my dad’s from law school and an ally of my grandfather, who was a union leader and held the office of president of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 851.
“When the bill finally passed in 1979, it really meant something to my dad and to my grandfather. They would have a big festival, picnic and parade in Galveston. The event spread from Texas to Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma at first and is now in one way or another an official holiday in 36 states. In 2003, a state senator named Barack Obama introduced a bill, making it a state holiday in Illinois.”
The 8th Annual Juneteenth Family Pool Party will be held at the Forest Park Aquatic Center from 8 till 11 p.m. on Sunday, June 19. Hoskins emphasizes “family” at the Juneteenth celebration.
“We’re not running a baby-sitting service,” he said. “The point of this is to engage children, to create an experience in which they can learn about the meaning of Juneteenth and have a good time doing it. I hand out some literature about Juneteenth but don’t try to make it a heavy educational event. That’s up to the parents to do when they get home.”
Children enjoy swimming in the pool while the adults socialize on the deck. The park district opens the pool without charge and keeps the snack bar open. Ultra Foods provides enough hot dogs and chips for 500 kids. Hoskins is pleased with how the business community has supported the event, saying that not a cent of public money has been spent on the celebration.
He works hard to make the celebration feel safe. A couple of Forest Park police officers are on hand and several adults are recruited to engage teenagers in an attempt to avoid the kind of disruptions that forced The Park to discontinue the July 4th fireworks. That’s one reason he tries to keep attendance stable at roughly 500. He urges parents to accompany their children and not just drop them off. Swimwear will be required if children want to jump in the pool.
Though most of the people participating in the event are black, Hoskins noted, “Slavery didn’t affect just black people but white people as well. Whether you call it Freedom Day or Juneteenth or Abolition Day, it affects all Americans, so it’s up to Americans to decide if it’s something they can deal with and commemorate. Everyone is welcome. Most of the white people who come do so because they know me personally but also because they are making a conscious effort to educate their children.
“What I have tried to do and what I think I have done is to introduce our community to a tradition that I grew up with that I think is a positive and, frankly, overdue tradition. I don’t expect everyone to celebrate, but it’s open to everybody.”