Galveston, the birthplace of Juneteenth, has been losing Black residents for decades

GALVESTON—Island natives don’t have to be told that their hometown has lost Black residents. Sharon Batiste Gillins sees it every time she goes to church. Leon Phillips feels it when he drives down Church Street, and sees vacant lots where Black-owned businesses used to be.

Galveston is the birthplace of Juneteenth, and reminders of that special distinction are scattered at historical sites along the city’s Freedom Walk, which traces the steps of Union soldiers who walked through the city on June 19, 1865, announcing that slavery had been abolished. But, over the years, the city’s Black population has gradually dwindled as a result of climate change, industrial innovations and gentrification.

Gillins, 71, attends Reedy Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was founded in 1867. Like so much in Galveston, it holds a distinguished place in Texas history as the state’s first AME church. When Gillins grew up it had a thriving congregation, but in recent years its numbers have tapered off to a few dozen.

I do worry about it, and I worry about the fact that there are fewer children in our congregations, because without children who is the future?” Gillins said.

As Galveston continues to see its Black population fan out to other areas, residents uphold the city’s Black history through public art, new museums and Juneteenth celebrations. But some say it feels like Black residents are being pushed out by forces beyond their control, without help from institutions that don’t care whether they stay or go.

“This city is drowning and I swear I’d stop it if I could,” said Sue Johnson, executive director of the Nia Cultural Center, an educational organization focusing on Galveston’s Black youth.

“The conditions Black people face here are so starkly disparate that in order to give them a chance, there needs to be focused and intensive care for that community, and until I see a commitment from city government that lends itself to that, I feel compelled to keep working,” Johnson said.

'Standing on our own two feet'

Even after it was ravaged by hurricanes in 1900 and 1915, Galveston, the oldest deepwater port in Texas, became an important shipping hub that formed the basis for the region’s economy in the early 20th century.

Decades after General Gordon Granger and thousands of Union troops, many of them free Black men, marched through the streets of Galveston announcing the end of slavery, Black people began flocking to the island for jobs. Dock work was a reliable way for men to earn a steady income during the first half of the century, and many people in Galveston can trace their family’s presence on the island to ancestors who came there to work as longshoremen, laborers who load and unload ships.

Between 1890 and 1940, Galveston’s population more than doubled, from 29,084people to 60,862. At its peak in 1960, when the city’s population reached 67,175, about 27 percent of residents, 18,282 people, were Black, according to U.S. Census data. The abundance of middle-class jobs, coupled with restrictive housing covenants that limited where Black people could live, resulted in a vibrant Black community centralized on the island’s northern end. Black-owned businesses abounded and children behaved with caution on the streets because they knew the watchful eyes of caring neighbors were looking out for them.“We were never the dominant population in town, but it was my whole world,” Gillins said. “It was our village in more ways than one, not just physically but emotionally, in the ways we supported each other and the way that children were raised communally.

We could go through the neighborhood and any mama on any porch could discipline you.”Local activist Leon Phillips, 74, remembers attending balls at the International Longshoremen’s Association building at 29th and Market streets and visiting his mother’s beauty shop on the second floor of the long-since-demolished T.D. Armstrong building on 31st Street and Avenue L, where she shared space with a drug store, a dentist’s office, and a night club, among other businesses.If you bought a new car, you’d go drive it down Ball Street (now called Avenue H), then circle back to Church Street — where Black-owned restaurants, cab stands, and hotels lined the road — to make sure everyone saw you in it, Phillips said.

“You couldn’t find a better place to live than Galveston, Texas,” Phillips said. “Being segregated meant we had to stand on our own two feet.”The island’s population gradually declined after its peak in 1960, as innovations in container shipping made many dock workers’ jobs redundant. By the turn of the century, the island’s population had fallen by 15 percent, to 57,186 people.

The Black population fell by about 21 percent, to 14,456 people, census data shows.“The work that hundreds could do could now be done by one or two men driving a crane, so that changed the dynamic. It changed the number of people who were literate but maybe not college-educated — middle-income Black people who could get good jobs and support their families,” said Gillins, who is a retired college professor and genealogist. As the shipping industry was being revolutionized, Texas began its slow journey toward racial integration. 

But what should have been a step toward equality had the unintended effect of destabilizing Black communities across the state, including in Galveston, residents say.

By the 1990s, rampant disinvestment had turned the once-bustling thoroughfare of Church Street into a haven for drug users, according to Anthony Griffin, a local attorney who owns property on the street. On Wednesday, Griffin, 68, stood outside the former site of the Gus Allen Hotel, once a trusted Green Book stop, in nearly 100-degree heat raking lawn trimmings off the now vacant lot, as he does every day. He’s purchased several lots in the area over the past couple of decades and hopes to scoop up a majority of the properties between Postoffice and Broadway streets, from 27th to 29th Street. Griffin dreams of building a mixed-use development that will bring grocery stores and other businesses back to the area where the descendants of formerly enslaved people still live. He said it’s important to confront the demons in this county’s past.

“First, I want to appreciate the history, and secondly I’m mean-spirited, in the sense that I don’t think they can continue to tell us ‘no,’” Griffin said as to why he’s pursuing this plan. “We have to recognize everybody’s contribution to this country. African Americans have had a Holocaust occur to them and we act like it’s a shame and we shouldn’t speak about it.”

The empty lots at the corner of Church and 27th Streets used to be a part of the Black business district in the 1950s, older Black Galvestonians recall on Wednesday, June 15, 2022, in Galveston. They said there used to be a hotel on the left side of this lot, a BBQ joint and a cafe on the other side of the street. Now, there are only a handful of Black-owned businesses on the island. Anthony Griffin, who has been living in Galveston since late 1970s and owns the lots in this photo, is hoping to redevelop this section and make it a business district again.
Retired attorney Anthony Griffin talks about his property at the corner of Church and 27th streets on Wednesday, June 15, 2022, in Galveston. Griffin, who has been living in Galveston since late 1970s, is hoping to redevelop this section and make it a business district. The land behind him was once home to a Black-owned hotel.
Retired attorney Anthony Griffin talks about his lands at the corner of Church and 27th Streets Wednesday, June 15, 2022, in Galveston. Older Black Galvestonians described this section as the Black business district when they were growing up in the 1950s. They said there are only a handful of Black-owned businesses on the island now. Griffin, who has been living in Galveston since late 1970s, is hoping to redevelop this section back into a business district. Behind him, there used to be a Black-owned hotel. 

Forced out in wake of Hurricane Ike

If industry and integration gradually pushed Black residents out of Galveston, Hurricane Ike and the years of rebuilding, or lack thereof, did so with relative swiftness. The city demolished three public housing developments — where many of the city’s Black residents lived in the aftermath of the 2008 storm — with promises to rebuild them with federal money earmarked just for that purpose.

Wealthy, mostly white Galvestonians, however, questioned whether the developments were worth rebuilding at all, arguing at public meetings that rebuilding affordable housing units would invite drug use and crime. In 2012, retired businessman Lewis Rosen, a vocal public housing opponent, unseated incumbent Joe Jaworski in the city’s mayoral election.

The racial undertones of the debate were all too apparent for those most directly affected.

“They didn’t say it so boldly, and it wasn’t that we had looked at (public housing) and figured out it doesn’t work. It was ‘we don’t want it back,’ and when they said ‘it,’ ‘it’ had a face. And that face looked like mine,” Phillips said.

Federal housing authorities eventually forced the city of Galveston to rebuild public housing in some form, and the city landed on a plan that included two new mixed-income developments and assorted single-family homes and duplexes scattered throughout the island. But the damage was done. In 2020, Galveston’s Black population had fallen to 9,030 people from 14,456 in 2000 — a drop of about 38 percent, according to U.S. Census data.

The island’s total population, by comparison, only fell by about 6 percent. In that same time period, the proportion of Black people in Galveston’s population plummeted from 25 percent to 17 percent, census data shows.

It’s a disheartening reality for the city’s longtime Black residents, many of whom trace their roots on the island back several generations, but local historians and activists have also taken steps to ensure their history in Galveston is preserved: the Nia Cultural Center has run a summer literacy camp called “Freedom School,” where children learn “how to advocate for themselves and how to take action,” since the 1990s, says their executive director, Sue Johnson.

More recently, local historian Sam Collins III spearheaded a campaign to open the Juneteenth Legacy Project, an art museum and historical center, on the site where General Granger read the order announcing slavery had been abolished. On the side of the building, which opened last year, is a 5,000-square-foot mural called “Absolute Equality,” painted by Houston artist Reginald Adams, depicting the story of Juneteenth.

When Juneteenth arrives on Sunday, Reedy Chapel Church will host a daylong festival to celebrate the holiday, complete with a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation on the courthouse steps. And Galveston’s Black residents will celebrate as they’ve always done, long before the rest of the country caught on.

The Cynthia and George Mitchell's funds several initiatives in Galveston, including the Juneteenth Legacy Project and Vision Galveston, a "backbone" organization established to act on the community's vision for the island, defined by diverse voices, collaborative growth, and a focus on helping Galveston to be an exceptional place to live, work, raise a family, and visit.

< Go Back

© 2012-2024 Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.