GATESVILLE — Four words changed everything.
On June 19, 1865, Gen. Gordon Granger put the full force of the U.S. Army behind the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation when he stood on the balcony of Ashton Villa in Galveston and read aloud “General Order No. 3.”
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
Across Texas, those last four words upended the political, social, economic, cultural and spiritual lives of slaves and slaveholders alike.
The order mandated “absolute equality” of personal and property rights between former masters and slaves, changing their relationship to “that between employer and hired labor.”
About 183,000 Texas slaves, more than 30 percent of the state’s population, suddenly became their former owners’ hired help. “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages,” according to the general order. “They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
The day Granger read the order declaring “all slaves are free” is celebrated annually in Texas as Juneteenth or Freedom Day.
As Texas slaves celebrated their freedom with prayers, hymns and parades, their former owners gathered to decide how to deal with the change. In some places, such as Hamilton County, the solution was simple. All former slaves were expelled from the county.
Coryell County, where Judge John Walker Mayberry was the chief justice and largest slaveholder, took a different approach.
Mayberry let his former slaves settle on a portion of his farmland between the Leon River and Dodd’s Creek about four miles from Gatesville near a stretch of the river called Moccasin Bend.
Mayberry’s former slave foreman, “Black Jim” Mayberry, received a plot of land in exchange for his continuing to supervise the workers on Mayberry’s farm. He and the other former slaves were paid wages, which many saved to purchase land.
The freedmen were allowed to keep their household items, some animals, farm equipment and axes to clear the land.
Jim Mayberry and other former slaves, including members of the Snow family who walked from nearby Hamilton County, formed the nucleus of a settlement along Moccasin Bend that was called Lincolnville in memory of the emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated two months before Juneteenth.
Deprived of education and religious worship during their bondage, Lincolnville settlers soon built a one-room school that was used for church meetings on Sundays.
In a matter of weeks, the founders of Lincolnville went from being property to property owners.
Jim Edd Snow pulled wire and pliers from his pickup to repair a sagging fence on his land on Moccasin Bend Road.
“The older I get, the slower I get,” Snow said as he secured a strand of barbed wire to a cedar post with a twist of the pliers.
Snow, 88, was born nearby in a small house at Lincolnville. Members of his extended family have lived and worked this stretch of land since Jim Mayberry, Snow’s great-grandfather, helped found the community in 1865.
Snow’s grandparents were born into slavery. His grandfather, William Snow, was 9 and his grandmother, Mollie Mayberry Snow, was 7 when Granger declared “all slaves are free.”
By 1884, William Snow owned a horse, wagon and more than 58 acres of land on Moccasin Bend, according to county tax records. The same year, Jim Mayberry paid taxes on 200 acres.
“My dad (Carl Snow) and my uncles each worked a part of this land,” Snow said. “A lot of this ground is too rocky to plant, but there is some good dirt here and there.”
As a schoolboy, Snow walked from his home to the old Lincolnville schoolhouse in the pasture of a neighboring farm.
“Our teacher was a lady who walked from Gatesville every morning,” he said. “We had to cross a branch on the way to school. If one of us fell in and got wet, the teacher would make us go home and change clothes.”
Snow attended the one-room school until he was 16; then he went to high school in what was officially called “the Afro-American Addition” of Gatesville. The black high school was small with few amenities and offered no sports or other extracurricular activities.
When he wasn’t in school, Snow worked with his father on the land, picking cotton and hoeing corn.
At 18, Snow joined the Navy and served on the USS Yorktown at the end of World War II. He returned to the home place on Moccasin Bend after the service, but concluded there was not enough good dirt on his share of the rocky ground, so he moved to Dallas and started an excavation and demolition company.
“When I made money in Dallas, I spent it down here,” Snow said. He devoted weekends to working and shaping the land on Moccasin Bend.
He fixed fences and brought backhoes and bulldozers to clear cedar and sumac brakes. He built seven stock tanks to water cattle that grazed the ground too rough to plant.
As his father’s generation passed away and split their shares of land among their children, many of Snow’s cousins wanted to sell their acres. “I bought ’em,” he said.
Snow has retired to a double-wide trailer near his birthplace, which he leases to deer hunters every fall. He putters around the land, clears brush, “plinks” at pond turtles, tends a small herd of cows and traps wild hogs.
“I love it down here,” he said.
Like the careful patchwork on his faded work jeans, Snow has pieced together more than 300 acres of land that was part of Lincolnville.
“I started with nothing,” he said. “I am proud of what I have done.”