A Juneteenth learning experience in New Orleans

Posted by

In a country that prides itself on being the “land of the free,” this is just one of our many social differences and falsities, another one of which is, notably, right around the corner: The 4th of July, Juneteenth is celebrated to honor the day African American slaves in Texas found out they were free two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. I would learn that some black people thought the 4th of July meant freedom for all people, but this was not the case. July 4th is to celebrate when America declared independence from the British in 1776. Frederick Douglass would pen, “This Fourth is yours, not mine.”

“This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice; I must mourn,” said Frederick Douglass on July 5, 1852, during an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence. “I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.”

Mahalia Jackson sculpture at The Mahalia Jackson Auditorium inside St. Louis Armstrong Park-Congo Square

A Juneteenth Experience

I attended my community church’s Juneteenth Celebration. I attended a multicultural non-denominational church with the majority being none-New Orleanians, including the pastor and staff. Still, we came to celebrate Juneteenth as brothers and sisters in Christ. We enjoyed a delicious spread of bbq ribs, baked macaroni and cheese, jambalaya, an assortment of salads, watermelon, and ice cream for dessert. The host played a few Juneteenth educational videos as we ate. Followed by one of the members would speak on the history of Juneteenth. As he said, a few people, including me, raised their hands to ask questions or add their knowledge on history. An older black New Orleanian woman would state that in all her years, she has never heard of Juneteenth until the church put the event on the calendar. She said, “All I knew was that we were slaves, and one day, President Lincoln freed us. I never heard of date, but I thought it was July 4th.” I was shocked and saddened by her announcement, but I felt proud of her for not being ashamed to tell us and her desire to learn more.

The shame and blame game

A young white couple from North Dakota was asked why they were quiet during the conversation. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, the wife cleared her throat and stated, ” We view people with Christian eyes and hearts. We love all people and do not see race. I’m sorry about what happened in the past, and all we can do is to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” I commended her, and said that I said that we all should feel like that, but some will be ignorant forever. No sooner a very passionate voice asked, “Why do white people not think black people deserve reparations, especially after the Jewish people were granted monies and our own Mayor Cantrell apologized to the Italians and gave them money?” I’m not sure how long my mouth hung open before I said, “It’s not the white people per-say, but the politicians, people in power.” Shortly after, another black person said, “Some white people feel that they should not be blamed for what their ancestors did over a hundred years ago.”

The Juneteenth Celebration turned into a heated debate, and I was told I was losing some of my blackness by living in Minnesota. All because I didn’t say anything about non- African American educating black people on the meaning of Juneteenth.

There’s also the fact that there are members who are black, blue, and rainbow who could have organized the event did the research, and presented it in the same manner. We can’t complain when we aren’t doing. Had it not been for the host, the woman may not have ever heard of or learned the facts about Juneteenth.

My cultural and racial awareness started early

I was raised in Uptown in a middle-class mixed-race community. My parents had friends of all races; actually, my family comprises blacks, whites, and Native Indians. I would learn that being for your people didn’t mean you were against another. Neither did belief or sexuality. One of my Mama’s best friends was a gay white man who would die of AIDS in the early 1990s. I didn’t feel any racial discrimination within my neighborhood, but sadly, I was teased by my black peers for my dark skin. That’s a whole different story…

As a whole, I was raised with the awareness of the matters of the heart, treat people well, and be forgiving. But my Mama did believe that cultures had a right to celebrate who they are and that black people were being held back because of the color of our skin. Although slavery is gone, I was taught that there are institutions that enslave, set up to prevent minorities from growing, and this is why we need to celebrate our history.

What exactly do I know?

I learned about my African American history from my parents and grandmother, but my Mama would go deep with it. I lived in a house sounded by African artifacts, books, fabrics, music to the fisted afro pic. There was no question we were ProBlack, lol. But to celebrate the history of African Americans and slavery in the community happened when I moved to Minnesota. I thought about the older lady, who had to be old enough to be my mother, and it came to me that Juneteenth, as a matter of fact, Black History Month, was not taught in school or the community when I was growing up. I hated my Social Studies classes after 7th grade with passion, I hated it, and I skipped it till I flunked it. Year after year, day after day of white men with wigs, knickerlockers, and petticoats was too much for my gifted mind to comprehend. I was sent to the office for asking simple questions such as, “Where are the black people?” Or, as it’s called “Defacing” the book by coloring the faces brown. I am Mama’s child. Had it not been for my upbringing, I would have thought the 4th of July was the day of the emancipation of the slaves as well.

My Mama was very active in the 1970s movement for Black people. She majored in African American studies, sharing her knowledge. My grandmother, my Momo, as I loved to call her, did her work for the people the Christian way. My Momo served in the church and community, quietly sharing the word of God. Both would share memories of attending events at Congo Square and picnics at Lincoln Beach. In contrast, my Mama was in the streets shouting for equal rights. They both mentioned celebrating and serving on Juneteenth, but my Mama did not think those things meant total freedom.

My Mama always quoted Fredrick Douglas stating that day of “independence” does not mark liberation for all. What Juneteenth symbolizes, by contrast, is a true day of freedom. That’s something worth celebrating, and continuing to fight for — not just among black folks, but among everyone.

Dancing in Congo Square

Illustration by Edward Winsor Kemble, 1866

The area now known as Congo Square, located in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, emerged as an essential public activity locale during the early decades of the French colonial period. Beginning around the middle of the eighteenth century, the Place des Nègres, as it was first known, became a market area where African slaves could sell their wares on “free days.” Though legally, slaves were forbidden from owning any kind of property, gathering in large groups, or conducting trade on their own, slave masters and colonial authorities usually did not interfere with the market.

Congo Square is in the vicinity of a spot which Houmas Indians used before the arrival of the French for celebrating their annual corn harvest and was considered sacred ground. The gathering of enslaved African vendors in Congo Square originated as early as the late 1740s during Louisiana’s French colonial period. It continued during the Spanish colonial era as one of the city’s public markets. By 1803, Congo Square had become famous for the gatherings of enslaved Africans who drummed, danced, sang, and traded on Sunday afternoons. By 1819. these gatherings numbered as many as 500 to 600 people. Among the most famous dances were the Bamboula, the Calinds, and the Congo. These African cultural expressions gradually developed into Mardi Gras Indian traditions, the Second line, and eventually New Orleans jazz and rhythm and blues.

Originally called “Place des Nègres” and “Place Publique,” Congo Square is located inside Louis Armstrong Park of New Orleans, Louisiana. This open space, north of the French Quarter, is situated in Faubourg Tremé, a community where, historically, persons of African descent have resided for more than three centuries.

Juneteenth in other cities

Over the years, I have visited several cities that celebrated Juneteenth on the same scale as our festivals; there’s a parade, luncheons, dances, and banners throughout the city to alert the residents and tourists of the celebration. There are events in other cities that celebrate a particular moment in the African American community, such as Rondo Days in St. Paul, MN. Rondo Days. Rondo Days is an annual weekend festival held in mid-July in Saint Paul, Minnesota, commemorating the Rondo Neighborhood. This African-American community was split in two by the construction of Interstate 94 in the mid-1960s.

Claiborne Bridge|Treme
Claiborne Bridge underpass

One would think New Orleans would have a similar annual festival in honor of the I-10 along Claiborne Ave in Treme. Claiborne Avenue was once a neutral ground and main street for Tremé, the oldest African-American neighborhood in the United States. In the 1950s, this avenue served as a community space lined with large oak trees and azalea gardens. During Carnival season, families would camp out, barbecue, and wait for the Mardi Gras parades to pass by. Due to racial segregation and Jim Crow laws in the South, African-Americans were not permitted to shop at white-owned stores. This resulted in the birth of the African American business district on Claiborne Avenue.

Making Juneteenth in New Orleans

I wonder why it isn’t Juneteenth celebrated on a larger scale in New Orleans, primarily when the city is known to celebrate some of the strangest things. We have festivals for food, a voodoo fest, a Greek Fest, a whiskey fest, and the list of fest goes on. Is it the sensitivity of the issue at hand that has some cringing at the even written word “J.U.N.E.T.E.E.N.T.H? Is it not celebrated as it should, because some think it’s “just for black” as if white people didn’t assist in this life-changing day? Is it hard for some to accept that Slavery did happen by way of their lineage? Can we stop avoiding ” The Talk” about the day African Americans became “real people” to the government? It happened we need to celebrate days, events such as Juneteenth together to prevent slavery from happening again.

Let’s honor Juneteenth together
We all can honor the freedom of African Americans, Jewish, Polish, Vietnamese, Italian people, all people. We need to stand united on never letting the history of slavery happen to any race. But sadly, Juneteenth, like the Emancipation Proclamation, did not mean freedom for everyone.

Blacks Were Enslaved Well into the 1960s

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which changed the status of over 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in the South from slave to free, did not emancipate some hundreds who were slaves through to the 1960s. These people were forced to work, violently tortured, and raped.

According to a series of interviews published by Vice historian and genealogist Antionette Harrell has uncovered long-hidden cases of Black people who were still living as slaves a century past the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Harrell’s groundbreaking work has exposed cases in her home state of Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Florida.

Harrell first began her work over twenty years ago; in 1994, she began to look into public and historical records and discovered that her ancestors belonged to Benjamin and Cecilia Bankston Richardson in 1853. From there, Harrell tracked down freedman contracts on her father’s side of the family that verified they were sharecroppers, and word spread around New Orleans, leading to several speaking engagements.

At another speaking engagement, Harrell was confronted after a talk in Amite, Louisiana, by a woman named Mae Louise Walls Miller who told her that she didn’t get her freedom until 1962, which was two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed granting Black people a host of legal rights and protections.

They had become debtors to the plantation owner and, as a result, could not leave the property. At the end of the harvest, this group was always told they did not profit and were told they had to try again next year. This cycle kept them on the land, and some of those people were tied to that tract of land until the 1960s.

Do I believe Mae’s family was the last to be freed? No. Slavery will continue to redefine itself for African Americans for years to come. The school to prison pipeline and private penitentiaries are just a few of the new ways to guarantee that black people provide free labor for the system at large. However, I also believe there are still African families who are tied to Southern farms in the most antebellum sense of speaking. If we don’t investigate and bring to light how slavery quietly continued, it could happen again.

Harrell does not believe that Miller’s family is the last family to face such a fate in the Deep South.

Antionette Harrell

Source credit: The Vice https://www.vice.com/amp/en/article/437573/

I believe it’s up to all of us to stop evil and all injustices of all people in the world. We must be like the church ladies, freedom marchers, and all those who use their lives as vessels of truth and justice for all.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s