Why we celebrate Juneteenth and how Texas Tech changed the legacy of West Texas.
In August of 1980, James Leon Williams Jr. moved from Washington, D.C., to Lubbock, Texas.
Williams had already received a bachelor's degree in psychology and had his sights set on a master's degree in counseling. Previous professors had spoken highly of Texas Tech University, so Williams and his wife Elise packed and headed south.
One hundred thirty years beforehand, Williams' great-grandmother took the same trip, but not willingly. Ada Tennison was a slave who had been sold in Virginia to a slave owner in Texas.
“That doesn't escape me,” Williams said. “I came to Texas because I chose to.
“A lot of people like my great-grandmother didn't have a choice.”
Slavery in the U.S. started in 1619 when the first ship of African slaves was brought to Jamestown, Virginia. From that time, slavery became a commonplace practice in the country; states, land and businesses were built on the backs of slave labor.
In many cases, Africans were kidnapped and torn from their families. When this happened, a slave was given their owner's last name, losing their family name and heritage.
Sumner is a fourth-generation Texan.
“I don't know how my family came to be in Texas,” Sumner said. “It could have been through slavery, more than likely. But like so many families, I don't have that history.”
The same thing happened to hundreds of thousands of Africans during the 18th and 19th centuries, leaving their descendants with little information about their heritage.
By the mid-19th century, the abolition movement had picked up considerable momentum and from 1861 to 1865, the country was torn apart by the Civil War, claiming the lives of more than a half-million people.
On Sept. 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the first of two Emancipation Proclamations, a pivotal turning of the tide. The document claimed that “slaves within any State, or designated part of a State in rebellion, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
And while many celebrated in the north, slaves in the south, particularly Texas, had no idea what had occurred. For years, news of liberation slowly made its way from Virginia to Texas.
“I think there were two reasons for the delay,” Sumner said. “First, it was the 19th century, so news traveled slowly. Second, there might have been those who heard rumor but until it was official, they carried on as they had been.”
But that day did come.
On June 19, 1865, federal troops arrived in Galveston to ensure the proclamation was carried out. Texas was the last state to put the emancipation proclamation into effect, finally signaling the end of the war.
That day, approximately 250,000 people were liberated from slavery in Texas. Thus, beginning the tradition of “Juneteenth.”
“The slave went free, stood a brief moment in the sun; and then moved back again toward slavery.” – W.E.B. Du Bois
In the following decade, there was genuine progress for Black Americans, but not without struggle.
“Yes, they were free,” Sumner said. “But at the same time, you have to realize former slaves' source of food, shelter, community and livelihood were gone, literally overnight. The slaves had nothing to call their own. However, they may have had few possessions, but at least now they had their freedom.”
African Americans had to figure out where they were going to live and how they were going to pay for it. Many families had been torn apart and sent to different states – husbands and wives separated, children taken from parents, siblings split up.
So, for many, their first task was to find their family; a huge undertaking in and of itself.
But there were other challenges, too.
“For centuries, white people had seen slaves as free labor,” Sumner said. “Most business owners weren't going to turn around and start paying them, or at least pay them very much.”
Even the right to vote came with a caveat.
“In 1870, Black men were finally allowed to vote,” Sumner continued. “But then it was decided they had to pass a literacy test to do so. Slaves hadn't had access to education, so how were they supposed to pass the test?
“After U.S. marshals pulled out of Texas in the late 1800s and political priorities changed, customs started to shift back to how things had been.”
Sumner's grandmother grew up in Dallas during the early 1900s.
“I vividly remember walking downtown with my grandmother when I was a little girl and her pointing to a Neiman Marcus store,” Sumner said. “She said, ‘I wasn't allowed to shop in there, not even if it was pouring rain; I couldn't step inside.'”
Colored people, as they were known, shopped at the H.L. Green variety store across the street, and that's how much of society was shaped: with colored people on one side and whites on another.
Free, but certainly not equal.
Jim Crow laws also were beginning to pass at state and local levels, making it legal to segregate communities. This made it difficult, if not impossible, for African Americans to vote, hold jobs or receive an education. Black codes were enforced and detailed how much a formerly enslaved person could earn.
These codes even made it legal to keep Black citizens as indentured servants.
“The rules that had governed society for hundreds of years were gone, but people's expectations and attitudes mostly remained the same,” Sumner said. “This notion of colored people not being equal had been baked into the fabric of people's minds. That was not going to change overnight.”
Williams' father had similar experiences.
“My father was born in 1913 and grew up in East Texas,” Williams said. “He knew education was the key to moving up in the world, so he attended Longview Colored High School and then Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, a historically Black college.”
After school, Williams' father worked as a Pullman porter, carrying passengers' baggage and shining shoes on George Pullman's popular sleeper cars.
“My dad fell into conversation with a passenger one day who worked in Washington D.C.,” Williams said. “The man was a politician and lit a fire in my father to become an attorney.”
Williams' father explained to the man that Blacks were not allowed to attend law school in Texas. The passenger told him there was an all-Black law school in Washington D.C. named Terrell Law School.
“My father went on to become the first African American District Attorney in Washington, D.C.,” Williams said, “which I am immensely proud of him for doing. However, because of his success and our assimilation into suburban life on the East Coast, I did not grow up hearing about my heritage, celebrating Juneteenth or really understanding the importance of the times I was living in.”
Williams remembers going to the March on Washington with his father and hearing Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“I was 12 years-old at the time, and there we were at this momentous event, but my father and I didn't really discuss it,” he said. “I look back and that really saddens me.
“I am not sure my father saw his Blackness as something to be proud of; rather, it was something to push down and suppress.”
After almost a century of Jim Crow, rumblings of change began to reverberate in the 1950s and 1960s.
Brothers and Texas Tech alumni, Charles and Don “Donny” Richards, witnessed these times firsthand.
Growing up in Aspermont, Texas, Charles and the younger Donny attended all-white schools.
“There were a handful of Black people who lived in our community, but in the 1950s everything was segregated,” Charles said. “They lived across the tracks and their children were bused to school in Spur, where there was a school for colored kids.”
That was the way things were until Charles got to Texas Tech in 1959.
“I was there when the first Black student, Lucille Graves, was admitted to the university,” Charles said.
Charles says he wishes he'd recognized the magnitude of the moment, but it was different when you were living through it.
“To me, it just seemed obvious that Black students should be allowed to enroll,” he said, “so I was glad of it and just kept at my studies.”
When asked why he was so open to integration at a time, Charles' answer was immediate.
It was because of a man named Glover Miller.
When Charles was in second grade, Donny was just shy of 2 years old. Born to a fourth-generation newspaperman, the kids often spent time at their father's newspaper office or their mother's adjoining beauty shop.
“One day in the spring of 1949, I was playing outside and our older sister, Mary Beth, was watching Donny while my parents worked,” Charles said. “My dad was printing envelopes on what is commonly known as a hand-fed ‘snapper' press.”
Mary Beth turned her back for a moment to get a drink of water and their father went to get another box of envelopes.
“In that split second, Donny put his hand in the press, and it immediately crushed four fingers on his right hand,” Charles explained.
The family rushed him to the nearest hospital in Stamford, but there was no salvaging the fingers. Little Donny had four fingers amputated that day, left with his thumb and a bit of his little finger below the first knuckle
“Our family was devastated,” Charles said. “I remember my older sister and my parents feeling so guilty, so naturally, they tried to compensate and pampered Donny: feeding him and doing almost everything for him.”
As a result, Donny always had his hand in his pocket.
“I was really self-conscious of that hand,” Don said. “I couldn't do anything with it, so I just hid it away.”
Two years later, Donny was playing outside the print shop when a Black man named Glover Miller decided to play a game with Donny.
“Mr. Miller was our gardener and worked for other families as well,” Don said. “Everyone in town knew and liked him. I remember Mr. Miller opening his hand and showing me a bunch of pennies. He said, ‘You can keep as many as you can hold.'”
Donny shot out his left hand.
“No, your right hand,” Miller said
Hesitantly, Donny pulled his right hand out of his pocket and tried to grasp a few coins.
“I couldn't hold very many that first day,” Don said. “But I quickly figured out how to use my thumb and what was left of my little finger to form a grip.”
Donny started bringing more and more pennies home. After a few weeks of this game, Donny's mother noticed pennies showing up in the laundry.
“She was worried I was stealing,” Don said. “I insisted I was getting the coins from Mr. Miller, so my mother went to talk with him. I think she felt bad because she assumed he was just giving me money.”
Mr. Miller explained to Mrs. Richards what he had been doing.
“You can't let the boy hide that hand,” Miller said. “You have to teach him to use it.”
When his mother realized the family's guilt had been limiting Donny instead of helping him, she decided things had to change.
“They stopped feeding me and doing everything for me after that,” Don said. “I started to learn to grip a fork, button my shirts and even started playing sports.”
In fact, Don later became a receiver on his high school's football team.
“I'm not sure what Don's life would have looked like had Mr. Miller not interceded when he did,” Charles said. “The man didn't have a formal education, but he had more common sense than most people I knew.”
Charles and Don regularly spent time with Miller and his family, often having dinner at their house.
“I think the reason integration made sense to me was simply because I'd had the honor of being friends with Glover Miller,” Charles said.
“People who were worried about integration often had concerns because they just didn't know anything about Black people. We fear what we don't know, and in the 1950s, society wasn't set up for white and Black people to get to know one another.”
The Richards boys were glad to be an exception.
Charles and Don went on to be the only siblings to both serve as editor of the University Daily, now the Daily Toreador, at Texas Tech – Charles in 1963 and Don in 1971.
“I wrote an editorial in ‘63 that called for integration in athletics,” Charles said. “I really didn't think it was a radical notion.”
Other schools in the Southwest Conference were integrating, and Charles felt it was time for Texas Tech to do the same.
“Most of the sentiment I got from the editorial was positive,” he said. “It just seemed if we had Black students, they should be allowed to play sports.”
Four years later, Texas Tech signed its first African American football player, Danny Hardaway.
“Hardaway was playing by the time I got to Texas Tech,” Don said. “That was an exciting time to be a Red Raider.”
Like Charles, Don was involved in the University Daily, the Saddle Tramps and other student groups.
“The Saddle Tramps inducted our first Black member when I was there,” Don said. “Ken Baker was a fabulous guy, had a great sense of humor and I was glad to be his friend. I remember him stealing the show during his first year because of a skit he did during induction.”
While there were good times on campus, Don also remembers the civil unrest people were feeling at the time.
“This was at the height of the Civil Rights movement,” Don said. “There were a few incidents at Texas Tech, but not as many as other places.”
Hardaway echoed this sentiment.
“The coaches at Texas Tech made sure I was protected and made that transition as smooth as possible,” he said. “If it weren't for them and some of the students I met, I probably wouldn't have made it. I went through hell, but I caught more hell when we went to other schools. My teammates, almost all of them, protected me from that stuff when we were at home.”
While West Texas was a step behind in abolishing slavery 100 years earlier, it was becoming a pioneer for good by the 1960s. Texas Tech was one of the first schools in the state to admit Black students, ahead of Texas A&M, Rice, Baylor and Texas Christian University.
Texas Tech was slowly becoming a place where Black people could belong.
And Forever Free
“It doesn't escape me that I work in a building I wouldn't have been allowed in 60 years ago,” Powell said. “But the success we have today is because of the struggle of yesterday.”
According to Powell, that's why days like Juneteenth are important to celebrate.
“The further we are from struggle, the more we embrace privilege,” Powell said. “The more we embrace privilege, the less we recognize the struggle that produced it.”
This year will mark the 157th anniversary of Juneteenth, yet the day became a federal holiday only last year.
“The story of Juneteenth is about what it took to get to 1865,” Sumner said. “Even though that day ended slavery, it also was the beginning of something else.”
It began the story of African Americans' struggle to be seen as equal, to be present in all spaces and to celebrate their ability to do so.
“Moving to Texas 50 years after my dad left it introduced me to a whole new world,” Williams said. “My dad didn't talk about growing up in the segregated South and, in some ways, I had taken on his way of suppressing our history.”
Coming to Lubbock was a way for Williams to tap back into that.
“Elise and I moved here in 1980, the first year Lubbock celebrated Juneteenth,” Williams said. “And we've attended the parade almost every year since.”
Like many in the Black community, Powell says the holiday has given something back to him.
“It's exceptionally important to continue celebrating this day,” Powell said. “It's important for those who have been marginalized, because part of the marginalization process is to strip you of your history and heritage – to take away what makes you, you.”
For Williams, Juneteenth is a chance to celebrate the heritage he was taught to hide.
“I wish this is something I could have shared with my dad,” he said.
Williams earned the master's in counseling he came to Texas Tech for, and he has now worked with the Lubbock Independent School District for almost 30 years.
“My students usually know nothing about Juneteenth,” Williams said. “We need systems to unapologetically teach Black history and celebrate the progress that's been made.
“You can't celebrate a victory you're unaware happened.”
And while it's been a slow victory with many wins still to come, Juneteenth is that – a victory.
“My grandmother who couldn't step into Neiman Marcus went on to have a successful career as a nurse,” Sumner said. “And until the end of her life, she had a cotton boll in a vase on top of her television.
“One day I noticed it and I asked her what it was. She told me to touch it and when I did, I pricked my finger. She said, ‘This is what your great-grandmother harvested; not the soft part, but the part that cuts right through the flesh.'
Sumner was startled to be touching it as she was only two generations away from those who had known the pain as part of their everyday life.
“My husband and I have stopped by cotton fields to have our children hold the cotton that remains on the fields after harvest so they might, for a moment, have a notion of what our ancestors experienced under the banner of slavery,” Sumner said.
As for Texas Tech, it continues to intentionally make space for Black students, and all students for that matter.
“To love Texas Tech is to love the people who've made it what it is today,” Powell said. “And there is no way Texas Tech would be the same school without the contributions of its Black students.”
In addition to Lucille Graves and Danny Hardaway, other Black changemakers have since attended and graduated, leaving their mark on the school and the country.
In 1982, Bernard A. Harris Jr. earned a medical degree from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and went on to become the first Black man to walk in space during his career as a NASA astronaut.
Two years later in 1984, Charles Q. Brown Jr. graduated with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering. He went on to become Chief of Staff for the United States Air Force, making him the first Black leader of a military branch in U.S. history.
“Texas Tech has changed West Texas for the better,” Sumner said. “While this was not always a place of possibility for African Americans, Texas Tech is changing the story.”
And no one would know better than Sumner herself. She is the first African American vice president at Texas Tech University.
“That's the next chapter of the story,” Sumner said. “It's more than being able to take up space; it's now about representation. Lucille Graves made young African American people realize they could go to a university; I hope I make young African American people recognize they can lead a university.”