America’s Father of Juneteenth and the Start of the March Towards a National Holiday

al-edwards-father-of-juneteenth
The father of Juneteenth Al Edwards with his family on the day the Juneteenth legislation was being signed. His son Jason, then 3 (who is now the current chair of his nonprofit), is held by Edwards' wife, while his older son, then 7, with his brother. Image: courtesy of Jason K. Edwards.

On the first year celebrating Juneteenth as a national holiday, we will recognize a powerful pioneer who through decades of advocacy elevated the status of Juneteenth, getting it on the federal radar, paved the way for Juneteenth to be made a national holiday in 2021.  His achievements and legacy  should be celebrated for the innumerable contributions he made throughout his life educating and promoting the significance and importance of Juneteenth..

The late Albert Ely Edwards, born March 19, 1937 and known as the Father of Juneteenth, was the catalyst for Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday now celebrated by Americans across the country. Mr. Edwards understood how important it was for the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans to be recognized on a national scale and knew the necessity of raising awareness of this painful chapter of American history borne by African Americans. 

At the age of 41, Edwards entered politics and was elected to the Texas State Legislature from Houston’s House District 146. His first major goal was to ensure the establishment of a holiday that recognized the emancipation from slavery. In 1979, legislation he introduced recognizing Juneteenth Day passed the Texas State Legislature and was signed into law.  As a direct result of his stalwart and tireless advocacy, Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, became an annual state holiday/observance in 49 states of the United States. Celebrated on June 19th, Juneteenth commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas in 1865, the last state to end American enslavement and nearly two full years after the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery was declared.  

During his career, Edwards understood that for the U.S. Congress to take up making Juneteenth a national holiday for a vote, it first needed to pass in the majority of the states. Therefore, while he served as the Vice Chairman of the Democratic Party’s Black Caucus for 10 years, the National Chairman of the Democratic Party’s Black Caucus for 6 years, a senior role in the National Conference of Black Legislators (26 years), and the National Conference of State Legislators (26 years), he used those national relationships and platforms to encourage his state Black Caucus colleagues across the country to pass the same or similar legislation in their states.  He always believed that “until all Blacks were free from bondage then none were free”, and this drove him to bring the Juneteenth Holiday from its origins as a Texas cultural holiday to the nation as a federally holiday and a critical piece of American history worthy of recognition at the highest level.  To facilitate his efforts, he founded Juneteenth USA in 1985 to advocate and raise awareness about Juneteenth. Juneteenth USA is the first and oldest Juneteenth advocacy organization in the country and is currently led by his son Jason Edwards.  

The march to the national holiday we celebrate today started the day the enslaved were free, but the legislative process started over 40 years ago in Texas and culminated with Al Edwards’ close friend and Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and Senator John Cornyn sponsored the Federal Legislation.  However, the road was not a smooth one as Edwards did not have the full support of all the 15 Black legislators at the time, let alone the more than 130 white ones. Through negotiation, compromise, and “politicking” as he called it, he won over the majority to get HB1016 to the Governor’s desk. 

Albert Ely Edwards (right) with the then-Texas governor  governor reviewing the legislation. Image: courtesy of Jason K. Edwards.

Though deeply involved with and committed to local issues, Edwards remained active outside the Texas State Legislature as well. In 1983, Edwards was appointed as a member of the board of Operation PUSH. Edwards also served as the Texas State Director for Reverend Jesse Jackson’s two presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988.  

Sadly, Mr. Edwards passed away April 2020 at the age of 83 before witnessing the fruit of his lifetime of labor reach the national scale. However, his work for the Black Community will live on.

Throughout his career, meaningful connections were made through his efforts fighting for equal rights. Therefore, it was of no surprise the wonderful words his colleagues had to share at his memorial service.

Congresswoman and Civil Rights leader Maxine Waters was a dear friend and work colleague of Mr. Edwards. They went on many missions together, including the fight to release Nelson Mandela from prison in 1963. The Congresswoman said the following:

”He was a highly effective and important member of the Texas legislature who created and chaired the Texas Black Legislative Caucus and served as Chair of the Democratic National Committee Black Caucus. Al and I served on the DNC together, we both endorsed, supported and worked for Jesse Jackson for President. We both worked to get Nelson Mandela released from prison and fought against apartheid in South Africa. Al Edwards stood firmly in the face of staunch opposition and wielded his influence to ensure that the abolition of slavery in the United States and the emancipation of our ancestors was properly recognized as a paid holiday in the state of Texas as a result he is recognized throughout the state and across the country as the Indisputable father of the Juneteenth holiday”

She continued her heartfelt speech:

 “…..on behalf of the entire Congress of the United States of the America, we all honor his service and commitment to Justice and equality love always your sister and of course Auntie Maxine thank you”   

Civil Rights icon Rev. Jesse Jackson, stated the following at Edwards’ memorial:

“Al Edwards is in the Hall of Fame. He made sacrifices. We thank God for his life and legacy. We are in his debt. Al my brother, God bless you and I want to thank you. Thank you for always being there. See you in heaven soon. Love you so much Al Edwards. I will never forget you. I love you so much and your family.”

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee’s:

“So, I say to all of you today Frederick Douglass said there is no power without a struggle the scripture says That our good and faithful servant Has done a job and it is well done.  So, I say to Representative Al Edwards to the life that you led, creating the national effort and movement with the state holiday of Juneteenth; honored by the United States Congress and inspiring so many of us to take your legacy and history that we have now created an Emancipation Trail that will start at the statue of Al Edwards in Galveston.  So, to his family I started by saying I thought of him as a man who walked through history fearless and unfearing, with the grace of God and the love of a man who understood courage and so today we honor him. and all I can say to you, live his life tell his story because history is who he is.”

On Sunday, June 19th, 2022, as you celebrate Juneteenth and its meaning, take a moment to remember the Honorable Albert Ely Edwards. Remember him as the man who for 40 years dedicated his life to ensuring America recognized and understood the importance of what the abolishment of slavery was to U.S history and for all Americans.  The servant-leader who tirelessly worked with state legislative bodies all around the country to have this law passed at the state level which singularly created the opening for the initiative to make its way to U.S. Congress, finally, officially recognizing this special day as a federal holiday

Content for this article was provided by Jason K. Edwards, Chairman/President of Juneteenth U.S.A. Inc , a non-profit organization.  For more information regarding the life and legacy of the late State Representative Al Edwards Sr. or Juneteenth U.S.A. please reach out to jason@juneteenthusa.org  

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