Biking the Juneteenth Freedom Trail
Texas freedmen walked away from plantation owners at the end of slavery. The Emancipation Trail ride covers the original June 19, 1865 route.
This essay is a special contribution to Momentum @ Medium by Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, also an avid cyclist. Scroll down for additional images of the ride, which started in Galveston and ended in Houston’s Emancipation Park.
Living in Texas, I have always felt connected to a special part of Black history in this country. It’s a complicated and difficult history of enslavement, oppression, and discrimination, but also of Black resistance, triumph, and joy. Juneteenth is emblematic of this complicated history. It marks the day that, on June 19, 1865, those who were enslaved in Texas finally learned about their freedom. This came two years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, because the White plantation owners decided not to pass on the knowledge to the enslaved.
The Emancipation Trail marks the historic route that African Americans took from Galveston toward Houston.
At the same time, regardless of the delay, Juneteenth remains a celebration of freedom, of the promise and excitement that the newly freed Black population of Texas felt as they heard this news. It is this sentiment of Black resistance and joy that we have attempted to capture in our annual bike ride along the Emancipation Trail. The Emancipation Trail marks the historic route that African Americans took from Galveston toward Houston. When I first took the route last year, I found myself doing a lot of thinking. It felt like a pilgrimage of sorts to follow in their footsteps, and to think of the hardships my ancestors had to endure walking along this same trail in search of new possibilities. Along this trail they established new towns, homes, and lives.
Reflecting on this pivotal moment in American history is so important, which is why I am incredibly grateful that, thanks to the efforts of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, this trail is now officially recognized as a National Historic Trail, and that Congress has also decided to recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday. In addition to recognizing this history, however, we must ask ourselves what we are doing to fulfill the promise of opportunity and freedom from that first Juneteenth.
In 1865, my ancestors broke their chains and left the plantations, but Black people today are still dealing with the chains of years of Jim Crow, of discrimination in housing and employment, and of mass incarceration and criminalization. The route of the Emancipation Trail ends in Houston’s Third Ward, the neighborhood where George Floyd grew up. His death last year at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer awakened many in this country to these modern-day chains. I do not know how much longer we will be on this trail to freedom, but I hope that we as a country can take advantage of this Juneteenth holiday to reflect on how we can get closer.
Biking by freedman settlements
The following essay is by avid cyclist Adrian K. Collins, director of operations at Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation. Collins, holding a bike helmet in the above pictures, sits on the board of directors at BikeTexas.
I remember celebrating Juneteenth every summer as a child in Bear Creek, Texas. My friends and I would bike to West Park to enjoy the festivities, learn about our heritage, and enjoy BBQ and music. Bear Creek is a community in Irving, Texas, and it is one of the oldest freedman’s settlements in the country. Freed slaves from the surrounding communities moved to Bear Creek, bought land, and raised their families.
Juneteenth is special to me because I realize its significance. I am familiar with the struggles my ancestors endured and overcame to improve their communities and our country. My community literally came into being with the emancipation of slaves. Even with the newfound freedom, communities like Bear Creek struggled to receive the same services that were commonplace in surrounding neighborhoods. That adversity helped build my character and my work ethic. It propelled that little boy who grew up along the hallowed ground of a freedman’s settlement to become a presidential appointee in the Obama administration.
Just like when I was a kid, this year I cycled the Freedom Trail from Galveston to Emancipation Park in Houston to commemorate those who came before me. I am thrilled that America can now ride with me and discover the rich history of Juneteenth.
“The route of the Emancipation Trail ends in Houston’s Third Ward, the neighborhood where George Floyd grew up. His death last year at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer awakened many in this country to these modern-day chains. I do not know how much longer we will be on this trail to freedom, but I hope that we as a country can take advantage of this Juneteenth holiday to reflect on how we can get closer.”
— Rodney Ellis, Harris County commissioner, Texas
Riding by the settlement where Texas freedmen became famous cowboys
Words by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who was instrumental in legislation for the trail and who authored the bill that made Juneteenth a federal holiday as of June 17, 2021. For years, Jackson Lee has led these Juneteenth remembrance efforts.
There are adequate rest breaks along the bike trail to visit historic sites like a trailer exhibit of memorabilia about Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor, who was born on November 26, 1878. Taylor became a professional cyclist at 18 and won the sprint event at the 1899 world track championships at the age of 20 to become the first African American to achieve the level of cycling world champion.
Another rest stop is at the 1867 Settlement, which was the home of newly freed enslaved people who bought property to form a community that would later be well known for the cowboy skills of its residents. It is estimated that 6,000 Black cowboys were employed during the period immediately following the Civil War to drive cattle from the West into the East and North.
A little-known fact is that some of the skills featured at rodeos owe their invention or refinement to Black cowboys — a term used to distinguish between Whites and Blacks. Whites were called cow hands and Blacks referred to as “cow boys,” which later became “cowboys” and used as a term for everyone regardless of race. Some well-known rodeo contest skills owe a thanks to Black cowboys like Bill Pickett (1870–1932), who invented the form of steer wrestling called “bulldogging,” and Jesse Stahl (c. 1879–1935), who was a bronc rider.
Juneteenth is a day for everyone to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States. Black history related to former slaves can be found in every aspect of American life and in most regions of the country, so I encourage bike riders to plan to host or attend a 2022 Juneteenth Independence Day Celebration.
For more stories on Juneteenth 2021, check out the following photo essays from Detroit, Birmingham, and Durham.
Juneteenth: A Photo Exploration In Three Cities
Momentum traveled to Detroit, Durham and Birmingham to document the holiday commemorating the slow end of slavery.
Juneteenth 2021 in Birmingham: True Southern Resilience
‘We unabashedly celebrate our Black joy as a form of resistance’