David H. O’Neal Jr. sits under the shade of a tent on a hot Thursday afternoon in Galveston with a story to tell. He is waiting for children to arrive, so he can tell them about a black man who excelled in a white man’s time.
As the children seat themselves, the story of Richard “The Judge” Nelson is about to begin. O’Neal tells of an African-American who served as the Galveston County justice of the peace during Reconstruction, a turbulent and dangerous era for blacks following the Civil War.
Nelson’s story is part of a Galveston Historical Foundation event commemorating Juneteenth. “The Making of the Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom” is designed to teach Galveston children about people who survived and excelled in the years before and after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation’s first reading in Texas on June 19, 1863, commemorated annually by Juneteenth.