In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain, and abolished slavery.
But the sparsely-populated region of East Texas was a temptation to Americans. The area’s rich farmland was ideal for cotton. So although the border between Mexico and the U.S. was officially closed, Southern planters began to illegally populate the area in droves, bringing large numbers of slaves with them to the supposedly free Mexican state. By the 1830s Americans in the area greatly outnumbered the Mexicans.
Eventually these American Tejanos decided to declare themselves politically independent.
Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was determined to crush this rebellion and free the slaves in Texas. With a large army he marched northward to meet the Texans who had occupied the Alamo mission in San Antonio. His army easily prevailed, leaving only one man – a black slave – alive. But Santa Anna was unexpectedly caught by another rebel force, and compelled to accept Texan independence in exchange for his own life. The Texans proclaimed the birth of the Republic of Texas.
Texas quickly legalized slavery, which had become the region’s dominant economic force.
For the slaves who made up more than half of the population of Texas, the geography offered several unique avenues of escape. One could run straight west into the vast territory controlled by the Plains Indians; rumor had it that the Indian warriors would accept blacks into their tribes. Or one could run north into Indian Territory; although the Five Civilized Tribes who occupied the area had their own system of black slavery, it was easier to escape detection there than in the Deep South.
But the best means of escape was to run south into Mexico. The Mexican government generally approved the establishment of runaway settlements, such as the one at Matamoros. Further south, groups of African Americans, Mexicans and Plains Indians established communities together. Although Texas slaveholders could chase runaways across the river, to do so they had to leave the protection of their own jurisdiction and face hostility from the people of Mexico.
The U.S. eventually won Texas away from both the Texans and Mexico, and Texas was made a state – a slave state – in 1845.
After the Confederacy surrendered in April of 1865, news of emancipation quickly spread to slaves in most of the Southeast. But in Texas, most blacks did not learn of their new freedom until June 19th of that year. On that day, General Gordon Granger, with 2,000 Union troops at his command, entered the port of Galveston and issued General Order No. 3, the official emancipation proclamation for all slaves in Texas.
Among black Texans, June 19th became a beloved holiday, known as “Juneteenth.” It was like a Fourth of July celebration that included parades, speeches, festive suppers and rodeos. The holiday eventually spread to other parts of the country and is still being celebrated by many today.