Texans know Juneteenth – the day commemorating the emancipation of slaves in Galveston, Texas, about two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. But what is less well known is the journey that followed emancipation: the migration of freed slaves from Galveston to Houston on what became known as the Emancipation Trail.
Now the National Park Service is studying this route for potential designation as a National Historic Trail. The study is currently in a comment period until the end of March, and the study is based largely on the efforts and research of Naomi Mitchell Carrier, CEO of the Texas Center for African American Living History.
Listen to Texas Standard’s interview with Carrier in the audio player above or read the transcript below to learn more about what it took for Carrier to gain more recognition for the Emancipation Trail, and what might happen if Congress grants it National Historic Trail status.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Texas Standard: Before going into the details of the course, tell us a little more about your organization.
Naomi Mitchell Carrier: The Texas Center for African American Living History documents, interprets, and preserves African American history from a woman’s and a woman’s African American perspective.
I became a lead investigator of this whole story that determines what we did when we were emancipated. But most of my work, like that found in my book “Go Down, Old Hannah,” is the living history of African American Texans that has been left out of the textbooks. And I wrote five historical plays that were reenactments at the sites they were written for, like Texas Parks and Wildlife, Sam Houston [Memorial] Museum, Brazoria County. We therefore reconstruct the African-American history of Texas.
Could you tell us a bit about the history of the Emancipation Trail? Obviously it’s quite a long saga, but give us some insight into why it’s so important historically..
We’re talking about a trail route that was established by historical use, and it must have historical significance because of that use. These are all the facts that we can locate such as trade, commerce, exploration, migration, and colonization that contributed to the emancipation and freedom of African American slaves.
How did you determine the path he followed?
It was a little difficult, but what we found out was that these people immigrated from Galveston in a number of ways. There was the railroad, then there was the land route and then there were the waterways. We estimate that many of them crossed the bay on the railroad. They would have known what the railway timetable was. And then the railroad parallels Highway 3, which was the highway from Galveston to Houston before we had Interstate 45. And then there were also trail routes that they were following – the waterways , rivers, places where there had been settlements before emancipation. So they used all these roads to travel.
But what we have to remember is that emigrating from Galveston to Houston was dangerous. Slaves, once emancipated, were encouraged to stay put, not to go where they were. We’re talking about 300,000 people in Texas, and they were encouraged to stay in slavery because it’s a great workforce. So it was by these three routes – land, sea and rail – that these people left Galveston to enter the Houston area, settle in Freedmen’s Town, and many of them settle in Independence Heights and in and around Emancipation Park.
The legislation that we should mention to investigate this potential designation track was really based, primarily, on your research. What attracted you to this project in the first place?
Our congresswoman, Sheila Jackson Lee, asked me to research the number of historic sites between Galveston and Houston. And so my research first took me to Birmingham, renting a car, driving from Selma to Montgomery and studying the Selma-to-Montgomery trail.
Their trail led to the Voting Rights Act, but our trail comes after a law, or the Emancipation – the Emancipation Proclamation. There were 40 sites that already had historical markers between Galveston’s Reedy Chapel and Freedmen’s Town. And for this to become the basis of the legislation that our congressman drafted.
Can you actually follow this lead today?
Two years ago we held an Emancipation Bike Ride and people rode bikes from Pier 21 in Galveston to Emancipation Park in Houston. So yes, you can do it today. We’re talking a little over 51 miles, maybe around 60 miles, depending on what detours you want to take. But yes, you can still travel today.
Why do you think it is so important that this trail be federally recognized?
Texas is not considered a slave state, even though it was the seventh state to secede from the Union. We consider Texas as the beginning of the Wild West or the American West. We consider it cowboys and hats, and we don’t consider Texas a slave state, but it was a slave state. In fact, it was the largest of the slave states.
It is the home of King Cotton and the Texas Sugar Bowl. And so this Path of Emancipation gives us the opportunity to interpret the importance of the African peoples, that they have contributed to the economy of the people in power. And these stories, many of them have not been told. And that is what this study will enable us to do. Which families came? Which families have been able to reconnect? Were there families that came exactly from Galveston to Houston?
And more importantly, the heart of the slave empire was in Brazoria County and Fort Bend. So there were people coming from Brazoria, Fort Bend, all over the Brazos River Valley all the way to Houston and settling in Freedmen’s Town and then once that neighborhood spread to Third Ward and Independence Heights.
We want to tell those stories and we want to document those stories. We mean the importance of Africans to the economy of Texas, which at the start of the Civil War cotton accounted for 70% of America’s gross domestic product.
Do you have a timeline for this study?
The study is expected to be completed in the fall of 2023, and then whatever they learn about it, that process will be reported to Congress, and then Congress will have to act on that with a management plan. . And then that’s when they really get into the details of the sites that will be along the way for recreation and for people to stop and learn the history of those particular sites.s.