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New Mexico State University General Counsel Roy Collins III has a special connection to Juneteenth, the holiday that will be celebrated in Las Cruces June 16-19.
Collins is a native of Galveston, Texas, where United States Army Major Gen. Gordon Granger, on June 19, 1865, issued General Order No. 3, giving formal notification that slavery had ended in Texas. That event has come to be celebrated across the country as Juneteenth.
The story began much earlier,” Collins said, and spread far beyond Galveston.
Human slavery dates to antiquity, he said, and was likely brought to the western hemisphere by French and Spanish colonizers in the 16th and 17th centuries. Spanish merchants brought African captives to San Augustine, Florida in 1565. When Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca landed on Galveston Island in 1528, his party included an African slave named Estevanico.
British privateers brought the first shiploads of slaves from Angola to Virginia in 1619.
The first victim of the Boston Massacre (March 5, 1770), and the first to die in the American Revolution, was Crispus Attucks, who was of African and Native American descent and may have been an escaped slave.
Through the mid-1800s, “human commerce” – the slave trade – was an active commercial enterprise and “a fundamental part” of the American economy, Collins said.
The role of slavery within society was a root cause of the American Civil War, which brought “the worst bloodshed in the history of this country,” he said.
In the middle of the war, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared freedom for more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in the 11 Confederate States of America (Feb. 8, 1861-May 9, 1865).
Lincoln called the Emancipation Proclamation “an act of justice warranted by the Constitution.”
But in Texas and the other Confederate states, slavery continued.
Many slaves were people of faith who had placed their “trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” and remembered Moses’ cry to the Egyptian pharaoh to “Let my people go,” Collins said. “Generations prayed and prayed,” he said, “and were praying on New Year’s Eve 1862,” the day before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.
“But through nine decades of testing the pronouncements of the nation’s Declaration of Independence that liberty is an unalienable right and that equality is self-evident, many enslaved people were asking, ’How about us?’” Collins said.
After Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender in April 1865, enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation became a matter of logistics, he said.
“How do you get to people are still captured in those southern states?” Collins said.
That is what brought Granger to Galveston, “the commercial and intellectual center” of Texas. With a company of about 2,000, a majority of whom were Black soldiers, Granger proclaimed the end of slavery.
The first celebration of that event was held Jan. 1, 1866, as Black people, including members of Collins’ family, marched from the county courthouse in Galveston to a nearby “colored church,” where General Order No. 3 and the Emancipation Proclamation were read.
“Collins’ great-grandfather, Ralph Albert Scull (1860-1949), on June 19, 1885, participated in a 20th anniversary “Emancipation Day” ceremony, in which his role was to read the Emancipation Proclamation. Over the years, the description of this commemoration evolved from “Emancipation Day” to “Juneteenth,” which Collins described as “shorthand for June nineteenth.”
The fight continues
When the Civil War ended, many Black U.S. Army soldiers “had no where to go,” Collins said, and “had to find another mission.” Some were sent to New Mexico Territory, staffing 11 frontier forts the federal government built to protect travelers and settlers in the West.
They were “ferocious fighters,” Collins said, and an unheralded part of “how the West was won.”
Black infantry were nicknamed Buffalo Soldiers by Apache warriors like Geronimo and Victorio, and 18 earned the Medal of Honor during the so-called “Indian Wars,” including at least eight battles in New Mexico.
So-called Jim Crow laws were introduced in southern states in the late 19th century, enforcing racial segregation, and the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling established the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
More than 350,000 Black soldiers served in segregated units of the U.S. military during World War I, and more than one million Black men and women served during World War II – the war President Woodrow Wilson said was fought to “make the world safe for democracy.”
Again, Collins said, Black people were asking, “’How about us? Do we get to be a part of this?’
“People began remembering the story of the Emancipation Proclamation,” he said.
The Civil Rights Movement (1954-68), led by Martin Luther King and others overturned separate but equal and resulted in federal laws passed to end racial discrimination.
Juneteenth is born
Texas State Rep. Al Edwards (1937-2020) of Houston sponsored House Bill 1016 in the Texas Legislature, making June 19 (Juneteenth) a state holiday beginning in 1979. It has been a state holiday in New Mexico since 2006 and became a national holiday in 2021.
“It’s about hope,” Collins said about Juneteenth. It’s about gratitude.”
It is also significant that the 1866 march in Galveston ended in “a house of worship,” Collins said, confirming “the spiritual ethic” that is part of the celebration.
“I also continue giving God credit for changing the hearts of human beings,” he said.
Collins’ family has always been a part of Juneteenth in Galveston, Collins said, and his telling their story in Las Cruces “help(s) people understand how interconnected life is.”