June: Juneteenth on Campus, 1900
In honor of Juneteenth, this month in UT History commemorates the Juneteenth celebrations that were held at Wheeler’s Grove, at the time a stand of magnificent oaks and elms, now a part of our campus. The Federal holiday Juneteenth, a shortened name for June 19, 1865, celebrates the day when the Union army arriving in Galveston notified the Texas population that the enslaved were now free. Though it took several months for the decree to be fully implemented, June 19th marked the end of slavery in Texas.
Members of Austin’s Black community have probably been celebrating Juneteenth since 1867. By the 1870’s Juneteenth had become an annually celebrated holiday here.[i] Newspaper accounts indicate that in 1874 and 1875 Austin’s “colored” population celebrated the day at Pressler’s Grove, a beer garden on West 6th street.[ii] By 1877 the annual celebrations had moved to Wheeler’s Grove.[iii]
Wheeler’s Grove lay at the eastern terminus of what is now 24th Street on the east side of Waller Creek. Extending north along the creek the land was flat and open under the enormous trees. This picnic destination sloped uphill to the east through the woods with open grassy spaces dotting the area between the stands of trees. When Texas Wesleyan College purchased Wheeler’s Grove in 1912 it was described as the area between 26th street to the north, 24th street to the south, Waller Creek to the west, and Red River Street, now known as Robert Dedman Drive, at its eastern border. The area, which now encompasses Creekside Residence Hall, UT’s Law School, Texas Memorial Museum, Butler School of Music, and San Jacinto Garage was bought by UT from the College in 1931.[iv]
When the University of Texas opened in 1883, The area north of what is now MLK Boulevard was settled predominantly by Black people with Wheatville in what is now West Campus as the largest community. This bucolic space in a sparsely populated and relatively isolated area outside of town surrounded by black residences became the principal location for Emancipation Day celebrations for three decades. Anywhere from 1500-5000 people attended each gathering, coming from the Austin’s Black communities – Clarksville, Wheatville, Robertson Hill – and from the surrounding hinterlands.
Some of the best-known pictures of Juneteenth celebrations were taken during the 1900 event by photojournalist Grace Murray Stephenson. We accessed them from the digital collection of the Austin History Center. These pictures provide a fascinating window into Emancipation celebrations and into the lives of Black Austinites at the turn of the 19th Century.
Emancipation Day celebrations in Austin were very public. Large numbers of participants gathered in the morning at a predetermined site and paraded up Congress Avenue led by the Chief Grand Marshal Alex Chalmers a marching band, dignitaries, soldiers, elaborate floats, maids of honor, sporting teams, and other participants walking, on horseback or in all kinds of horse drawn vehicles.[v] At the capital they often received a greeting from the governor.[vi]
Juneteenth was a very important public social occasion. People dressed accordingly in their very finest outfits often buying new clothes and shoes for the event.
Each year elite men from Austin’s black community organized the celebration, led the parade and gave speeches at the barbecue ground. They were religious leaders, public administrators, school officials, or prominent business men. In 1900 the welcome address was given by S.J. Jenkins Superintendent of the Colored Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Institute. Though this does not seem to have been the case in 1900, White dignitaries, usually politicians, also addressed the crowd.
Black Austinites usually attended as multiple generational extended families. All sectors of the Black community participated. In this picture of three boys eating watermelon you can see one barefoot and another with shoes and socks indicating the range of socioeconomic status of participants.
Emancipation Day was a patriotic celebration with observers often likening it to a black 4th of July. Black people were commemorating the nation and their new citizenship in it. An important visual theme on the picnic ground was red, white and blue flags and bunting.
The military motif was central to the celebrations. Black men could revel in their long-denied citizenship and manhood in this manner. As can be seen from this photo of the occasion’s Officers of the Day, military dress and regalia were highly esteemed.
Black paramilitary groups like the Georgetown rifles and the “negro National Guard” played a prominent role in the 1900 celebrations. With their uniforms, marching, and music they provided much of the pomp and circumstance of the proceedings.
Music and dancing were an important part of the revelry. Descriptions of the occasion had the event lasting past midnight. One can imagine the string band in the photo playing as partiers danced through the night. There were diversions of all kinds – baseball games, cattle roping, croquet, swinging.
Food is perhaps the central feature of the occasion. In 1900 it was reportedly free, undoubtedly financed by the fundraising of the Emancipation committee. The photo depicts a central culinary element, the barbecue pit. The main barbecue meat was beef but mutton and pork were also served.
Though free food was offered many participants brought picnic baskets from home and enjoyed their home-prepared favorites during the day. There was also a strong entrepreneurial spirit that accompanied Juneteenth celebrations. As can be seen from the photo, the day before food and drink vendors set up elaborate booths to take advantage of the large throngs of the hungry and thirsty.
This photo and the one of the three boys above represent a stereotypical understanding of Blacks as depicted by the white photographer – the supposed Black affinity for watermelon. In fact, Juneteenth takes place at the beginning of the height of watermelon season. The appearance on the barbecue ground each year of newly abundant sweet watermelon undoubtedly made it a highlight of the occasion and the season.
[i] “TSHA | Juneteenth.” n.d. Accessed June 1, 2022. https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/juneteenth.
[ii] Daily Democratic Statesman (1873-1880). 1874a. “The Colored Picnic Today,” June 19, 1874.
[iii] Daily Democratic Statesman (1873-1880). 1877b. “Emancipation Day in Austin,” June 20, 1877.
[iv] “TSHA | Texas Wesleyan College.” n.d. Accessed June 1, 2022. https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/texas-wesleyan-college.
[v] Austin Daily Statesman (1891-1902). 1900. “Emancipation Day: it will be duly observed in the Capital City by the colored citizens: Two Celebrations Arranged for the Day, One at Wheeler’s Grove and One Down at Govalle,” June 18, 1900.
[vi] The Austin Statesman (1902-1915). 1903. “Emancipation Day was duly observed: Parade in the morning followed by a picnic-Governor’s kind words observed at Waco still at it in San Antonio,” June 20, 1903.