Discover Galveston's many firsts related to Black History Month
Celebrating Black History Month in Galveston
Galveston’s African-American history includes connections to emancipation, religion, education, and boxing. While Galveston has many Texas firsts, this island also has many firsts when related to Black History Month in Galveston.
First let’s start with one of most significant connections to Black History in Galveston which is Juneteenth.
On June 19, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to enforce the emancipation of the slaves. The reading of General Order #3 is observed at Ashton Villa, 2328 Broadway. There you’ll find a Juneteenth historical marker and 9-foot statue named “Unknown Legislator.” This is a statue of Al Edwards, a State Representative from Houston. In 1979, he began hosting an annual prayer breakfast and celebration on the grounds of Ashton Villa on Juneteenth. The statue depicts Edwards holding up a piece of 1979 legislation making Juneteenth a paid Texas State holiday.
Granger’s orders read, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor…”
Historic Black Churches
Galveston has more than 50 Texas’ firsts, including the custom house, first medical school, and first nursing school in Texas. This list also includes many historically African American churches and congregations that have been in existence for over 100 years.
Most notably, Avenue L Missionary Baptist Church, 2612 Avenue L, was the first African American Baptist Church in Texas. Its congregation grew from the Colored Baptist Church, formed in 1840 as the slave congregation of First Missionary Baptist Church. The church has operated from this Avenue L site since 1855.
Reedy Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 2013 Broadway, was the first African Methodist Church in Texas. The Methodist Episcopal Church South established an African American church for its slaves in 1848. The original church burned and the congregation completed a new church in 1888.
Saint Augustine Episcopal Church, 1410 41st Street, was the first African American Episcopal Church in Texas. It was organized in 1884 and moved to its current location in 1940. It is the oldest historically African American parish in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.
Another historic church to note is Holy Rosary Catholic Church, 1420 31st Street. Holy Rosary was the first African Amercian Catholic Church in Texas. Bishop Nicholas A Gallager organized the first African American Catholic School in 1886. And, in 1889, Father Phillip Keller, a native of Germany, was appointed the first resident pastor of Holy Rosary Parish. The school and parish moved to its current location in 1914. The school closed in 1979.
Central School was established in 1885 and was reportedly the first Texas school for black people. It was renamed Central High School in 1886. After operating out a small wooden building, famed Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton designed the 1893 building which was later expanded with a library in 1904. The school was moved to a new location, 3014 Sealy, in 1954 and operated there until the schools were desegregated in 1968. Old Central Cultural Center, 2627 Avenue M, preserves the remaining building.
Important Historic Figures
In 1970, James Earl Jones portrays a fictional character based on Jack Johnson’s life in “The Great White Hope.” John Arthur Johnson, nicknamed the “Galveston Giant,” was born March 31, 1878 in Galveston. He later became the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion (1908-1915) and is considered one of the most influential boxers of all time. As his wives and romantic interests were white, in 1912, he was accused of violating the Mann Act, which forbade transporting a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes” and sentenced to a year in prison. He was pardoned in 2018. Another interesting fact about Johnson is that in 1920 he opened the Club Deluxe, a Black and Tan night club in Harlem. In 1923, he sold it to gangster Owney Madden, who renamed it the Cotton Club.
There’s a tree sculpture of Jack Johnson at 4321 Sealy. It was created by local sculptor Earl Jones.
As noted in Wikipedia, “Although Johnson grew up in the South, he said that segregation was not an issue in the somewhat secluded city of Galveston, as everyone living in the 12th Ward was poor and went through the same struggles. Johnson remembers growing up with a “gang” of white boys, in which he never felt victimized or excluded.
Remembering his childhood, Johnson said: “As I grew up, the white boys were my friends and my pals. I ate with them, played with them and slept at their homes. Their mothers gave me cookies, and I ate at their tables. No one ever taught me that white men were superior to me.”
Diversity of Performances at The Grand
To celebrate Black History month, The Grand 1894 Opera House, 2020 Postoffice, has added a photos of artists to their exterior windows who have performed at The Grand. You can also visit their website to view photos and a brief biography of the artist/performance. The theatre describes it as “a walk through our past and present during this month of celebration. The Grand is committed to continuing its history of diversity, equity and inclusion in the arts.”
If you’re interested in more information on the history of African Americans in Galveston, look for a copy of African Americans of Galveston by Tommie D Boudreaux and Alice M Gatson, published by Acadia Press. The book celebrates Galveston’s African American culture from the 1840s to the 1960s.
Make the most of these travel tips and enjoy your getaway in Galveston. Ryson Vacation Rentals offers more than 250 properties across the island that provide plenty of reasons to visit Galveston this year. If you need help planning your visit, Gulf Coast Concierge is available to assist.