Nearly two dozen bicyclists set off on a 60-mile journey from Galveston Sunday morning, retracing the footsteps of newly freed slaves who moved to Houston in the years following the Civil War.
In January, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn authored a bill asking for a federal study of the Emancipation Trail, a 51-mile path from Galveston to Houston undertaken by black families to announce that federal officials had ordered enslaved people in Texas to be free. It would be just the second National Historic Trail honoring African American history in the U.S., after the Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail.
That trail may become the path for an annual bike ride to learn about black history in Houston and Galveston, organizers said, marked by stops in freedmen’s towns and historical landmarks.
The Emancipation Trail Ride began at Reedy African Methodist Episcopal Church in Galveston, the first AME church in Texas. Shortly after sunrise in Galveston, genealogist Sharon Gillins met the group embarking on the Emancipation Trail Ride at the church, where a Union general announced news of emancipation on June 19, 1865 — later to become Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery.
Visiting the church is an opportunity for people regardless of race to learn about the state’s black history, Gillins said, and all residents should learn about a wide variety of holidays from southeast Texas’ diverse population.
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“If the greater community does not recognize or know their contributions as a race, or anything about their history in the community, they’re much more likely to believe these people’s lives don’t matter,” she said.
As the heat kicked in, the group cycled from Galveston to the landmarks including the 1867 Settlement in Texas City and Butler Longhorn Museum in League City before cruising to Brays Bayou in Houston, following the waterway as it carved a path from Mason Park to the University of Houston, through Texas Southern University and then taking the streets to Emancipation Park.
Historians and community leaders met the bikers at each stop, sharing stories about the history of black Americans from the slave trade, Reconstruction and civil rights in southeast Texas.
Samuel Collins III, an adviser to the National Trust for Historic Preservation who tailed the bikers as they cycled to Houston, said actively learning about Texas’ black history is vital to building equal opportunities for black Americans.
“There are not enough stories about everyone who contributes to our society,” Collins said. Two weeks ago, he and his 22-year-old daughter drove from their home in Hitchcock, a 48-mile drive on Interstate 45, to join tens of thousands of protesters who flooded downtown Houston to rally after the death of George Floyd, the longtime Houston resident killed when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
The plan to ride had been in place long before protests following Floyd’s death. But as the date of the trail ride grew closer, it became more crucial than ever to know local black history, organizers said.
Jackson Lee and historian Naomi Mitchell Carrier, who organized the event, met the group at the end as they gulped water and loaded bikes onto their vehicles in front of the Emancipation Park Cultural Center. Several pieces of legislation on police accountability, reparations for African Americans and Juneteenth are in the works, the congresswoman said.
And that’s only the beginning, Mitchell Carrier said, as she clutched a Bible to her chest and addressed the group about the Black Lives Matter movement and racism in the country.
“America has become too comfortable with the deaths of black people,” Mitchell Carrier said.