GALVESTON, Texas (CN) – News that President Abraham Lincoln had ordered slaves to be freed took more than two years to reach slaves in Galveston, Texas. Photos of current Galveston police officers on horseback with a roped black man in tow went viral within seconds, drawing outrage and apologies from the police chief.
Two Galveston officers arrested Donald Neely, 43, on suspicion of trespassing on Saturday in the palm tree-lined, laid-back island city, population 50,000, 50 miles southeast of Houston.
With bystanders recording with their cellphones, the horse-mounted officers handcuffed Neely then tied a blue rope to his cuffs and led him away.
Photos hit social media and people complained it called to mind Texas’ slaveholding past, reminiscent of a captured slave being led back to his master.
Galveston Police Chief Vernon Hale said in a statement Monday that a squad car was not available when Neely was arrested, so the officers decided to escort him on horseback.
“Although this is a trained technique and best practice in some scenarios, I believe our officers showed poor judgment in this instance and could have waited for a transport unit at the location of the arrest,” Hale said.
Hale, a black man, publicly apologized to Neely for the “unnecessary embarrassment,” but he said the officers were not acting with “malicious intent.” The police chief said the department is suspending this method of transporting arrestees.
Galveston’s 10,000 black residents account for 20% of its population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The African-American holiday Juneteenth has its origins in the city, one of the nation’s busiest cotton exporting ports in the 1800s.
As the story goes, in June 1865, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect, ordering freedom for an estimated 3.5 million slaves, a Union Army general came to Galveston Island with 2,000 troops to occupy Texas.
Standing on a Galveston balcony on June 19, the general read an order, stating in part, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
Newly freed black people reportedly celebrated in the streets and a group of former slaves started the holiday the next year, though blacks were treated as second-class citizens and murdered by white lynch mobs in Texas well into the 1900s.
Galveston is also the hometown of boxing legend Jack Johnson, and there’s a statue of him on the island.
Johnson beat several white boxers to become the first black heavyweight champion in the U.S. in 1908 and held the title until 1915. He died in 1946.
He snubbed taboos of the time by marrying and dating white women, leading to his felony conviction and one-year prison sentence for violating the Mann Act, a federal law that outlawed transporting a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes,” a charge historians say was clearly race-related.
President Donald Trump posthumously pardoned Johnson last year.