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Memories of marking Juneteenth: ‘It was a big event all over town. It was our holiday’

Memories of marking Juneteenth: ‘It was a big event all over town. It was our holiday’

It’s now a federal holiday – and Eleanor Thompson has fond recollections of celebrating Juneteenth in Austin over the years

Juneteenth has only just been recognized as a federal holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in America, but Eleanor Thompson has decades of memories celebrating it in Austin.

“It was a big event all over town,” Thompson, 78, recalls. “It was our holiday.”

Juneteenth honors 19 June 1865, the day when the last enslaved African Americans were freed in Galveston, Texas. Though the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, it was not enforced in Galveston until federal soldiers arrived to read it out after the end of the civil war.

Up until last year, Texas was the only state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday, giving most state employees a paid day off.

On Thursday, Joe Biden declared “Juneteenth national independence day” a legal public holiday. Calls to make Juneteenth a federal holiday were amplified last year in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. Many national companies started giving employees the day off last year.

Thompson’s family has been in Austin for at least five generations, and her memories of celebrating Juneteenth go back to her days as a young girl.

“It’s very meaningful. Even now, it really hasn’t stopped down through the ages. We still celebrate it,” Thompson said.

Cookouts were a staple at the celebrations, with barbecue grills being lit up all over Austin. Men, including Thompson’s father, would start barbecuing the night before to ensure a feast was ready for the next day. Thompson said she remembers she and her siblings making a big fuss over the outfits they would wear.

People also brought side dishes and desserts to the cookouts, and debates on who had the best potato salad were abound. Thompson would always make sure to grab a slice of pound cake. Kids would play baseball, and adults sometimes joined i.

Thompson specifically recalls attending her church’s large celebration in Onion Creek, a neighborhood of south Austin, and hopping from one neighborhood to another with her family to join multiple celebrations with family and friends.

A parade, which Thompson has marched in on several occasions, went through the city. People took out their lawn chairs and lined the streets to watch the procession. Thompson remembers leading a neighborhood singalong, where lyrics of spiritual songs would be put on stage.

The winner of the Miss Juneteenth pageant – which is still held in Austin and other cities around the US – would be announced. Thompson’s younger sister won third place one year.

“She [recently] said, ‘I still have my ribbon that I wore that day, and I have a little trophy that I received for that’,” Thompson said. “Those things are precious, they hold precious memories for us.”

Even those who did not go to the big celebrations often honored the occasion within their own family.

“People barbecued in their yards. Maybe they weren’t going to events, but it was a holiday that people recognized and wanted to slow down and observe because it is important to us,” Thompson said. “Our stories about slavery are horrendous and heartbreaking, but emancipation was a wonderful thing.”

Thompson said she was excited by this week’s news that Juneteenth will be a federal holiday. “I didn’t have any idea that we had that kind of moment,” she said. “I think it will be a real opportunity to at least reflect on what slavery was about, because we never want that kind of thing to happen again. That’s the whole purpose of those good memories about it.”

While Thompson is celebrating the widespread adoption of Juneteenth, she is also on a mission to restore what she refers to as “Old Emancipation Park” in the Chestnut neighborhood of east Austin, close to where she grew up. The park is currently an empty lot, but Thompson would like to see it revived as a place to commemorate and celebrate Juneteenth. The plot of land was originally purchased by emancipated slaves as a spot to celebrate the holiday, and was used as such into the mid-1900s.

“It’s just a vacant piece of land. It’s kind of sad,” Thompson said. “I know for a fact it is a place that deserves some kind of recognition and remembrance, that these men thought it was important enough that they actually purchased land so we would have a place to go and celebrate Juneteenth.”

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