Listen for stories of freedom
- Published: June 18, 2015
While the American Civil War continued to rage unabated, President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863, issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” It wasn’t until April 9, 1865, however, when the war ended with the Confederacy’s surrender in Appomattox, Va., that the Proclamation became real in the South. But even then, the new reality was slow to manifest.
More than two months would pass before enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned from Union troops traveling through the state that the Civil War had ended and that they were free. June 19, 1865, is recognized as the date the news reached Galveston, and that date has come to be known as Juneteenth.
The remembrance of Juneteenth might have been associated with bitterness and sorrow, notes Kevin McGruder, an assistant professor of history at Antioch College. But formerly enslaved people “chose to focus on the emancipatory” aspect and turned the day into a public celebration centered on food, music and fellowship. “It’s an example of the saying, ‘Making a way out of no way,’” McGruder said.
McGruder, who co-wrote a book on the Emancipation Proclamation in 2013, in correlation with the Proclamation’s 150th anniversary, became interested in efforts over the past several decades to enliven and continue the Juneteenth tradition.
The annual celebration spread widely across the South after the war and into the early 20th century, but began to die out in the mid-1900s, particularly as waves of African-Americans from the South moved to urban areas in the North. More recent efforts to bring it back now extend around the world as celebrations of freedom, McGruder said.
A member of Central Chapel A.M.E. Church here in Yellow Springs, McGruder approached the church leadership about hosting a local Juneteenth program there two years ago. They repeated the event the following year, adding a meal to the proceedings. This year, they’re “bringing it back” more closely to the original celebrations, McGruder said.
“The history of this — it was a public program,” he said. “When it started, it was an outdoor celebration, with food and music.”
He approached Basim Blunt, a friend who is a member of First Baptist Church and an organizer of the annual Kwanzaa celebration at John Bryan Community Center, about First Baptist co-hosting this year’s local Juneteenth event, which marks the 150th anniversary of freedom coming to the enslaved of Galveston.
That same time period “was pivotal” for both of Yellow Springs’ historically black churches, McGruder said, as First Baptist was formed in 1863, and Central Chapel in 1866.
Both churches will present this year’s local event, with the festivities to take place at First Baptist — outdoors, if weather permits. “It’s a return to cultural tradition,” McGruder said.
The event, from 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, June 17, will feature music, including congregational singing and a performance by the Booth Family Drummers, a potluck meal, fellowship and a program during which members of each church will read excerpts from oral history narratives collected during the 1930s from formerly enslaved people.
At the time of the oral history interviews, the participants were in their 80s and 90s, McGruder said. The narratives are archived in the Library of Congress, and more than 1,500 are available online. They represent the most extensive resource for what life was like for people held in bondage in the U.S. in the Civil War period.
The readers will be two couples: Robin Jordan-Henry and Anthony Henry, of First Baptist, and Sharon and David Perry, of Central Chapel. In commemoration of Juneteenth’s 150th anniversary, the excerpts will be drawn from Texas narratives.
In one break with tradition, this year’s local event will be on June 17, rather than June 19. McGruder said the change was a matter of scheduling the best day for the event to get good attendance.
All are invited. Those who plan to bring a potluck dish are asked to email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 927-562-1938 by Monday, June 15, for planning purposes.
Juneteenth started at a specific place in time, but has come to represent a wider ideal, McGruder said. “It’s resonated with people throughout the century, and it becomes everybody’s story in some way.”