In Texas, a park founded by formerly enslaved people prepares to celebrate its 150th Juneteenth

Community members gather in Emancipation Park
Community members gather in Emancipation ParkEmancipation Park Conservancy
  • Emancipation Park in Houston was founded on June 19, 1872, to commemorate the end of slavery in Texas.

  • This year's Juneteenth celebration will mark the park's 150 anniversary.

  • Texas residents shared memories with Insider about living by the park during the Jim Crow era.

Every year since 1872, Black communities in the Houston area have gathered on June 19th at Emancipation Park in the sweltering heat to reminisce, roller skate, and dance the evening away.

On June 19th, 1865, enslaved people in Galveston, Texas—45 miles outside Houston—first discovered they had been freed after troops arrived in Texas to deliver a General Order. At the time, most enslaved people in Texas were unaware that President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation had freed them two years prior.

Emancipation Park is where the first Freedom Day—now coined Juneteenth—public celebration took place in 1872. Before then, Juneteenth celebrations were hosted privately amongst close family and friends at home.

Emancipation Park co-founder's Rev. Jack Yates's family
Emancipation Park co-founder's Rev. Jack Yates's familyHouston Public Library/HMRC

"At that time, they provided food, and they had games, and different things that people did together in celebration, and they had parades," Jackie Bostic, the great-granddaughter of Jack Yates, who was one of the founders of the park, told Insider.  "They always had a parade."

This Juneteenth, the park will be celebrating its 150th celebration along with its own anniversary.

Over the years, the park has become a pillar of Houston's Black community and has hosted proms, community meetings, health clinics, recreational activities, and summer programs for children. Local residents told Insider that during the time of Jim Crow segregation, it was the only place they could go as Black Houstonians to access recreational spaces or a public pool.

A band plays for Juneteenth
A band plays at Emancipation ParkEmancipation Park Conservancy

The park was founded by four formerly enslaved men.

The park was founded by Richard Allen, Richard Brock, Jack Yates, and Elias Dibble, who were all pastors of nearby churches. They bought the land with $1,000 (around $24,687 today) as a way to commemorate the end of slavery, and as a way to exercise their new right to own property. The four men had been emancipated with the declaration in 1865 and had become leaders in their communities.

Bostic told Insider that initially when the men went to purchase the land for the park, they were turned down, but after years of building a relationship with the owner, Yates was able to strike a deal to purchase the 10 acres of land.

The ministers' congregations pooled together to raise the money to purchase the land. The park was seen as a community project in the heart of Third Ward—a predominantly Black neighborhood in Houston.

A carriage used as a part of Juneteenth celebrations
A carriage used as a part of Juneteenth celebrations at Emancipation ParkEmancipation Park Conservancy

The community immediately created an oversight association to care for the conservation and preservation of the land.

"When the founders acquired this property in 1872, they weren't thinking about recreation or green space or quality of life. They were thinking about building a community servicing the needs of people in the community," Emancipation Park Conservancy's board chair  Ramon Manning told Insider.

For the first few decades of the park's existence, it was mainly used to host Juneteenth celebrations because they could not afford year-round maintenance. In 1916, when the city of Houston took over, that changed.

Emancipation Park became the first public park in Houston and was the only park Black residents in the city could frequent between 1922 and 1960.

"It is a very important part of the community because it has always helped the community to understand and celebrate Juneteenth which exemplifies freedom for all Americans," Bostic said.

Teens hanging at Emancipation Park
Teens hanging at Emancipation ParkEmancipation Park Conservancy

Residents remember the park as being the only place they could take swimming lessons.

Despite the stigma around Black Americans not knowing how to swim—a stereotype that arose after decades of segregation and exclusionary practices at public pools—residents Gertrude Stone and Sylvia Brooks both have fond memories of taking swimming lessons at Emancipation Park.

Brooks, who was born in 1941 and grew up only blocks away from the park, remembers Emancipation Park as the only place she could take swimming lessons as a child.

"My father was committed to making sure we learned how to swim," Brooks said. "They had lifeguards and everything and that's where we learned to swim." Brooks said she and her siblings walked to the park every week for their lessons.

Children play in Emancipation Park
Children play in Emancipation ParkEmancipation Park Conservancy

Stone, born in the 1930s, attended Jack Yates High School which was named after one of the park's founders.

She told Insider when she was a drum major in the high school marching band, they would practice at Emancipation Park because it was the only open space they could go as a predominately Black band.

"We did not have enough ground capacity to execute maneuvers for the games," Stone told Insider. "So I had to make sure the Jack Yates band's students did what they needed to do so that they would give a wonderful halftime activity every evening."

Residents gather to roller skate during 2019 Juneteenth celebrations in Emancipation Park
Residents gather to roller skate during 2019 Juneteenth celebrations in Emancipation ParkEmancipation Park Conservancy

The historically Black neighborhood is facing the effects of gentrification.

When integration began in the late 1960s, the makeup of the Third Ward began to change. Wealthier Black families, who invested in the park and other community infrastructure, began to leave the neighborhood for the suburbs and other parts of the city.

As a result, the park received less funding from the city and community, thus eventually becoming dilapidated.

In 2017, the city of Houston announced that it would spend over $33 million to renovate and restore the park. The park now has a brand new pool, recreation facility, community complex, as well as basketball and tennis courts.

"The neglect wasn't because it was purposefully neglected … it was a bit of a big thing to maintain," Brooks said. "Today, it has a conservancy and all of that has been thought through. But that wasn't the thinking through then."

Today, the demographics of the historically Black neighborhood is changing. Like many Black communities, the Third Ward is fighting the effects of gentrification and displacement. The area has transformed from a population that was over 90% Black to one that is now 60% Black.

People dancing during 2019 Juneteenth celebrations in Emancipation Park
People dancing during 2019 Juneteenth celebrations in Emancipation ParkEmancipation Park Conservancy

This year's Juneteenth celebrations have been in the works for over three years.

As far as the milestone of this year's Juneteenth celebration, board chair Manning told Insider that they have been planning this year's Juneteenth festivities for over three years.

"This is probably the largest production in any community of color in the city's history," Manning said.

The park will have activities throughout June, beginning with a ceremony and panel discussion at the Buffalo Soldiers Museum on Memorial Day, which is the largest museum dedicated to Black service members.

Celebrations during 2019's Juneteenth in Emancipation Park
Celebrations during 2019's Juneteenth in Emancipation ParkEmancipation Park Conservancy

They will have a film screening that will show the path Union soldiers took to reach Galveston, Texas, to free enslaved people, and various panels on health, education, and how to build sacred Black spaces led by Dr. Julius Garvey, the son of human rights activist, Marcus Garvey. The festivities will be capped off with a two-day, sold out concert on June 18-19 headlined by the Isley Brothers, Frankie Beverly, and Maze.

"If you see the theme of these talks, they have been consistent as it relates to constantly giving you a steady dose of the history and the cultural aspect of this place but also addressing and discussing issues that directly affect this community," Manning told Insider.

"It was important when we started thinking about the planning of the 150th, in addition to the celebratory things, how do we give you some substantive history and cultural aspects on things that we are facing still today while we are being reflective and celebrating."

Read the original article on Insider