Texas

Former State Rep. Al Edwards, Who Helped Make Juneteenth A State Holiday, Dies At 83

Al Edwards, known to some as “Mr. Juneteenth,” helped recognize the abolition of slavery as a statewide holiday.

Al Edwards, left, with now-Mayor Sylvester Turner in th state legislature. Edwards died Wednesday, of natural causes, Turner said.

Al Edwards, a civil rights activist and former Houston legislator who helped Texas become the first state in the country to make the abolition of slavery an official holiday, died Wednesday of natural causes. He was 83. 

Edwards, who was first elected to represent parts of Houston in the state House of Representatives in 1978, served more than 30 years total in the legislature, first until 2007, then again from 2009 until 2011. 

The news of Edwards’ death was announced by his family and Mayor Sylvester Turner Thursday. 

“The Honorable Al Edwards worked tirelessly for the people of House District 146 and the state of Texas,” read a statement from Turner, who served with Edwards in the Texas House of Representatives for more than two decades. 

“Because of the COVID-19 public health crisis, his family and many friends will not be able to gather in person for a memorial service,” Turner said. “But make no mistake, Al deserves a grand celebration for his lifetime of achievements.”

Most noteworthy among those achievements was the establishment of Juneteenth as a state holiday in Texas, commemorating the day — June 19, 1865 — that enslaved African Americans in Texas finally learned of their emancipation, after the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston. The holiday was the result of a bill, H.B. 1016, introduced by Edwards as a freshman state representative, to “considerable opposition,” Turner said.  

Edwards overcame that opposition in part by cutting controversial deals with political opponents, according to the Houston Chronicle. One Republican supported the bill after Edwards helped him pass anti-abortion legislation. 

Albert Ely “Al” Edwards was born March 19, 1937, the sixth child out of 16 children born to Reverend E. L. Edwards, Sr. and Josephine Radford Edwards, he told biographers. A graduate of Phillis Wheatley High School in Houston’s greater Fifth Ward, and later graduated from Texas Southern University in 1966.

At 41, Edwards was elected to the state House. But the lifelong civil rights activist continued demonstrating: In 1987 he was arrested and jailed for protesting apartheid in South Africa. 

Edwards went largely unchallenged for decades until 2006, when now-State Sen. Borris Miles, a former police officer and businessman, ran against him, specifically targeting his working relationship with former Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick.

Miles, who dubbed the democratic Edwards a “Craddick D,” went on to win that election. But the two became political rivals, with Edwards winning his seat back in 2008. Miles won again in 2010, and then held on to the seat in 2012, the last time Edwards ran.

Miles on Wednesday called Edwards a pillar in the community, and a pioneer.

“I thank Al for all that he did for our community,” Miles said. “For without the drive of leaders in the face of evil, we would be nowhere. We must continue the fight of our forefathers and mothers to rise and lift each other up.”

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Paul DeBenedetto

Senior Producer

Paul DeBenedetto is Houston Public Media's senior web producer, writing and editing stories for HoustonPublicMedia.org. Before joining the station, Paul worked as a web producer for the Houston Chronicle, and his work has appeared online and in print for the Chronicle, the New York Times, DNAinfo New York, and other...

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