I keep reading that most African American families have been celebrating Juneteenth all of their lives. I don’t know if that’s true. Dating back to 1866, Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Although I don’t know if it’s true that most African Americans have always celebrated, I’m ready for ALL American families to celebrate it now.
I had never heard of Juneteenth as a child. Sometime in the 1990s, Dad wrote a letter to all of his offspring when we were adults to tell us that he had been reflecting on our childhood. He had decided that the primary “race” we had grown up with was “Army brat,” not “African American.” It was a thought worth considering. Carl, Marcia, Keith, and I had all been born into the Army, and we lived that life almost until adulthood; I was 17 when Dad retired from the Army. And the Army absolutely has its culture, customs, institutions, expectations, and relationships, which are probably not quite what you would imagine unless you lived them. We were shaped by Army life. And because we lived our late childhood and teen lives in Hawaii, we gained other powerful influences that affect us to this day.
But I think Dad overstated. Because despite the potter’s wheel of the Army and the influence of Hawaii, we were always Black. And especially as Army brat teens in Hawaii, we celebrated our Blackness. We were active at Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, the only predominantly Black church on the island at the time. We had our house parties and our Young, Gifted, and Black variety shows. We planned with the Soul Society at Leilehua High School.
But I had never heard of Juneteenth. In my teen years, the holiday was over 100 years old and had not reached my African American family. Black history was not absent from my schooling. Nearly every biographical report I ever wrote for school was about a Black man. But I only knew a few. I was aware of Crispus Attucks, who as the precursor to too many 20th century movies and television shows, was the first American to die in the nation’s fight for independence. I was fascinated by the Civil War and its immediate aftermath, but I only knew a few names and dates. I was enamored with Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carter, because I was taught about them. They were the safe Blacks. I eventually learned who Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were. They were slightly more radical.
I learned erroneously that the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. In truth, it was more symbolic than effective. And although Abraham Lincoln remains a (flawed) hero for me, I didn’t know until college that his stated aim was not to free slaves, but to preserve the Union. And I knew about General Lee’s surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Court House. But I never learned of General Gordon Granger’s visit to Galveston, Texas, 2½ years after the Emancipation Proclamation. By then the war was over, and the general had the honor of announcing the news to the farthest reaches of the nation in Galveston.
A year later, June 19th, 1866, Juneteenth was celebrated, and it has been continually celebrated in the nation since then. This year I learned that Franklin, Tennessee, has an annual Juneteenth celebration. Franklin, Tennessee, y’all! The Franklin mayor has issued the proclamation, and the town has released relevant videos all week. Because of the quarantine, the videos replace the usual gatherings with stories, histories, games, food, music, and door prizes organized by the African American Heritage Society and usually hosted at the McLemore House. The House, which was purchased by ex-slave Harvey McLemore, now serves as a museum, preserving Franklin’s African American heritage through the efforts of many, including Alma McLemore. I have written in the past about my own experiences as a Black man visiting Franklin, so these events and actions encourage me.
The end of slavery is not a solely African American event. It’s an ALL American event. As my friend Dr. Timothy Padgett, a white Evangelical historian, wrote on this occasion a year ago:
“That [slavery,] this repulsive institution, was overthrown when all the financial and philosophical pressures of the day, not to mention a literal army, pushed in the other direction is a testament to the efforts of all those, famous and unknown, who prayed and hoped and wrote and spoke and bled and died for that day. If this liberation of 3.5 million human beings from inhuman degradation isn’t worth celebrating in the Land of Liberty and the church of Christ, then I don’t know what is.”
Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, Liberation Day, Juneteenth is truly a celebration of African Americans’ freedom from slavery. But it is also freedom of white Americans from slavery. This day commemorates the pivotal moral moment in United States history. On that day we did not arrive as a moral nation. We still have not. But that day signified for all “who prayed and hoped and wrote and spoke and bled and died” a repentance, a turning point, which has been—and can continue to be—a seedbed for justice for an ethical society. Apathy continues. Active opposition continues. In newer and newer forms. But that day gives us hope. It’s time for us all to celebrate.
In years past, locals and others commemorate Juneteenth by focusing on its origin and meaning amid games, food, music, door prizes and other activities at the McLemore House.
“It is a day of remembrance and of sharing history and stories of how freedom changed lives in Williamson County as well as emphasizing and truly understanding and appreciating the challenges and hardships African Americans faced despite being free,” Alma McLemore said.