Arts & Culture

‘We are Black history’: Galveston attracts thousands for Juneteenth, attend first place of celebration

Reedy Chapel was the first place enslaved people went to after learning of their freedom. The church now attracts thousands during Juneteenth to learn of its history.


Robert Salinas/Houston Public Media
Family members of the Gray family visit Reedy Chapel church in Galveston to learn the history of Juneteenth from its pastor Lernette Patterson (yellow shirt).

Many Juneteenth celebrations have taken place across the country, and Galveston is the hub. It was on the island where Union General Gordon Granger arrived to read Order No. 3, freeing 250,000 people in Texas from slavery. Many of those men and women gathered at Reedy Chapel to worship and celebrate their freedom.

"I imagine it as very electrifying. I imagine it was jubilant. I imagine the people were in such joy and anticipation of what the future would hold for them," said Lernette Patterson, the senior pastor at Reedy Chapel.

Reedy Chapel has been hosting visitors for the past week interested in learning about the history of Juneteenth and the church's unique role in its origins.

"It has been wonderful. It has been busy. It has been a lot of preparation for Juneteenth," said Patterson. "Many of you might not know but Reedy is the first documented celebration of Juneteenth on the island of Galveston."

Among the visitors who arrived in Galveston to celebrate were members of the Gray family. They traveled from across the country for their first family reunion in 30 years.

"We picked Galveston because it's more like a destination and it is significant with Juneteenth," said Ken Johnson, one of the dozens of people wearing a Gray Family Reunion shirt. The shirt has a picture of the family patriarch and matriarch on the center.

John and Lilly Gray left Arkansas in the early 1900s and moved the family to Kinloch, Missouri in search of more opportunities for the family. They built a home in a farming community and the family flourished spreading out across the country.

Kenya Johnson is their great granddaughter. She says planning the reunion took a year of Zoom meetings to organize.

"We knew there were a lot of historical opportunities for Black folks in Galveston and we knew that the tour (of the church) was an option," said Johnson. "Juneteenth seemed like the ideal weekend to really remind us of our own roots and our ancestry."

Inside the church the family listened to a history lesson about the people on the island and the role the church played in Juneteenth. It was those history lessons that were one of the main reasons families like the Gray's were in Galveston.

Renard Smoots traveled from New Jersey to take part in the reunion.

"We had a reception last night and one of the things I enjoyed was just the sharing of oral history," said Smoots. "You know, we are Black history. We are the living embodiment of Black history and keeping that alive in an oral tradition was a phenomenal experience."

Reverend Patterson says the church will wrap up activities with an Emancipation reenactment Monday evening. She says it's important to keep promoting the history of Juneteenth.

"So now that it is a national holiday it brings awareness to the world that this actually took place and it is a historical moment that we should celebrate," said Patterson.