This Juneteenth is a year of legacy, according to some community leaders in Edinburg.
With the election of the nation’s first black president, and the probable confirmation of the first Hispanic woman to the Supreme Court, never in the 140-year history of the observance has it been so appropriate, leaders say.
RGV chapter members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), officials with the City of Edinburg, and the family of the late Al Ramirez, Edinburg’s first hispanic mayor, gathered at Restlawn Cemetery in Edinburg to commemorate the city’s 16th Annual Juneteenth Celebration.
Juneteenth honors the arrival of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas in 1865, which essentially freed slaves in the former Confederate state. Restlawn is infamously known in Edinburg as a cemetery meant solely for African Americans during the time of segregation with some headstones dating as far back as 1930.
The family of former Edinburg mayor Al Ramirez was presented with a Senate Resolution expressing the Senate’s “deepest condolences” for Ramirez, who passed away in April. The family placed a bench at Restlawn in Ramirez’s name. He pioneered the cemetery’s development from an obscure and often overlooked area in northern Edinburg to a well-manicured and important piece of city history. Juneteenth has been commemorated every year at the cemetery since 1993.
“My father just inspired you to do things, you know, just because it was the right thing to do,” said daughter Valerie Ramirez. “I think when he supported this cemetery it was a way to say ‘thank you’ and to try to correct the injustices that he saw. He was a champion for the underdog.”
Al Ramirez decided to improve the cemetery in 1992 following the race riots in Los Angeles. It was named Restlawn in 1993 by members of Edinburg’s black community, and maintenance is provided by volunteers, the City of Edinburg, and the Homer Salinas Rehabilitation Center.
“I sit here and I look at the cemetery separated from the main cemetery (Hillcrest) and it kind of hits home, it makes you remember what it was like in those days when African-Americans couldn’t be buried with the general population or the rest of the cemetery,” said City Council member Gus Garcia. “Looking at what we have here you see the cemetery growing towards the black cemetery, I don’t know if that’s symbolic of the integration that this country has experienced, but that is essentially what’s happening.”
Dr. Beverly Fridie, a leading figure in the community in Edinburg and an adjunct faculty member and director of the University of Texas-Pan American Center for Learning, Teaching and Technology, said the event is significant on a local level because “we stand on the shoulders who died in this graveyard.”
“We want to give thanks to them because of their blood, sweat and tears that we do have the first African-American president, we have Sotomayor who will be on the next Supreme Court,” Fridie said. “How appropriate to have it at this time to give thanks. It’s also important to never forget, and coming to the cemetery not only brings us back to the lives we live, this is the legacy they have left to encourage us to leave our own legacy.”
According to Edinburg history, in 1928 Dora Watkins Baker appealed to her employer, County Sheriff A.Y. Baker, to find a suitable burying ground for Edinburg’s growing black community. Sheriff Baker, a director of the newly organized Hillcrest Cemetery Association, unofficially designated a half-acre in the undeveloped northwest corner of Hillcrest property as the cemetery for African-Americans. It was a word-of-mouth agreement, and no legal transfer was recorded.