Walk to honor Juneteenth, Black history
- Published: June 22, 2022
In its second year as both an official Village and a federal holiday, Juneteenth will be celebrated in Yellow Springs on Sunday, June 19, beginning with a 10-mile walk from Wilberforce to the village and culminating in a celebration at the Bryan Center.
Juneteenth commemorates the June 19, 1865, announcement to the enslaved Black Americans of Galveston, Texas, that they were no longer enslaved. The announcement was made two months after the Confederacy surrendered, ending the Civil War.
The walk is a new addition to the village’s Juneteenth celebrations and was planned by the YS Juneteenth Planning Committee in collaboration with Daughters of the Underground, a nonprofit organization dedicated to walking Underground Railroad routes across the country. The walk from Wilberforce will follow a portion of the Underground Railroad, where formerly enslaved people made their way to freedom after crossing the Ohio River.
In a recent interview with Central State University’s WCSU 88.9, Daughters of the Underground members Jennifer Bailey and Kimberly Smith said the group formed in the spring of 2020 when a collective of eight Black women began meeting to walk together. The walks were intended both as a way of staying active in the early months of the pandemic and as a way of staying connected to historical roots.
“As we grew as a group, we decided that the weekend of Labor Day in 2020 would be an ideal time for us to take a week and walk from Harriet Tubman’s birthplace [in Cambridge, Md.] to where she became free in Kennett Square [Pa.],” Bailey said.
That initial walk spanned 116 miles. Smith said that, as the story of the group’s journey made its way through social media, people would meet the women along their route and offer water, support and places to rest.
“In a country where people have different perspectives on history and race … I was really worried about our safety,” Smith said, noting the dangers inherent for Black Americans following the killing of George Floyd several months earlier. “But to see the humanity in that moment was really mind-blowing and a blessing, honestly.”
Kevin McGruder of the YS Juneteenth Planning Committee told the News that Smith and Bailey approached the committee earlier this year about planning a Juneteenth walk because, as Ohio natives — Bailey grew up in Dayton and Smith in Cleveland — they’re both familiar with the history of Wilberforce University, one of the nation’s oldest historically Black universities.
Founded in 1856, Wilberforce University was purchased by the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1863, making it the first Black-owned and operated higher education institution in the U.S.
“Because of that — in particular because it was in the North — it became something of a beacon to African Americans nationally,” McGruder said.
He added that Daniel Payne, an AME bishop and founder of the university who became its first Black president after the 1863 purchase, was friends with renowned local Black philanthropist Wheeling Gaunt.
“[Payne] may have been one of the reasons why Wheeling Gaunt moved from Kentucky to Yellow Springs,” McGruder said.
The first three miles of the walk will take place along hilly Brush Row Road, which will be closed to vehicular traffic. The remaining seven miles of the walk will take place along the bike trail into the village. Along the way, walkers will pass a number of landmarks connected to Black history; a map with historical information will be given to walkers.
The route from Brush Row Road to Jacoby Road along the bike trail is flanked by farmland, with some streams and the Little Miami River not far away. The bike trail itself covers the former route of the Little Miami Railroad. McGruder said these elements of the walk hold special historical significance.
“For freedom seekers, rivers and railroads were often routes — particularly railroads, because people knew they were leading somewhere,” he said.
Rivers were also often both routes and places of refuge. Some historians believe the spiritual “Wade in the Water” had a hidden meaning: while the song was and is used when holding baptisms at churches, it may also have been used to remind Black Americans seeking freedom from their enslavers of a method to evade “slave catchers.”
“They needed to ‘wade in the water’ to hide their scent from the hound dogs, because that was the typical technique that slave catchers used,” McGruder said.
Passing Goes Station and approaching the Riding Centre, walkers will next come near to Grinnell Road, where the home of Dunmore and Eliza Gwinn was located. The Gwinns were part of the Conway Colony, a group of around 30 formerly enslaved people who left Washington, D.C., and came to the village.
“Many of the Conway members became founders of First Baptist Church in 1863, and initially it was the antislavery church,” McGruder said.
Though some members of the colony moved on to other places, the Gwinns stayed in Yellow Springs. The foundation is all that remains of their home now, but the Gwinns’ legacy lives on through their descendants, some of whom still live in the village.
Along the final stretch to the Bryan Center, McGruder said walkers will pass two other landmarks in local Black history: Antioch College, which was notable for accepting Black students from the time of its opening; and just near the Bryan Center, the former site of the Union House Hotel, which was owned and operated by the Hunsters, a local Black family.
Those who are unable to complete the entire 10-mile walk may join the group at later points in the journey; suggested points at which to join include where Brush Row Road intersects the bike trail near the Xenia Township Building, Jacoby Road or The Riding Centre.
McGruder said he views the walk and following celebration as a time to remind people of the origins of Juneteenth: that white enslavers intentionally concealed from enslaved Black Americans the truth of their freedom for two months.
“The enslaved population was an asset — because they were considered property — their value exceeded the value of every other asset in the southern slaveholding state,” McGruder said. “If we understand that, then it helps us understand why [enslavers] withheld the truth.”
He added that, when that truth was revealed in Texas, formerly enslaved people must have been angry — but that their following actions were borne out of joy.
“They could have been bitter and lashed out … but the majority focused on freedom and the future, and celebration of that as a community,” McGruder said. “That’s really the spirit that we try to bring with the celebration.”
The Juneteenth Walk will begin at 8 a.m. on Sunday, June 19, following a brief program at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce; a shuttle bus taking Yellow Springs walkers to Wilberforce will depart from the Bryan Center at 7:20 a.m. All walkers, regardless of where they join the route, are asked to register in advance at bit.ly/yswalk2022.
The Yellow Springs Juneteenth celebration outside the Bryan Center will begin at noon with music from DJ Radio Basim. Food will be available for purchase from Blue Smoke Blaire’s BBQ. A program will begin at 1 p.m. and will include readings from the “Slave Narrative Collection” and music from World House Choir and Gyamfi Gyamera. The YS Library will give away books for young readers written by Black authors.
In the event of rain, the celebration events will be moved inside the Bryan Center gym; the walk will be held rain or shine.
To listen to the full WCSU interview with Bailey and Smith, visit bit.ly/3MUOGk1.