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5 Star Stories: Juneteenth honoring the past and celebrating the future

Updated: Jun. 15, 2021 at 11:35 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - This year may be the most celebrated Juneteenth in American history.

It’s the first time in 156 years the emancipation of America’s enslaved people is being recognized by an increasing number of communities across the nation.

”Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration for the ending of slavery,” said Memphis Juneteenth President Telisa Franklin.

It’s also known as Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, and Liberation Day in the African American community.

”Given the segregated nature of the society, it’s one of those celebrations that’s largely unknown outside of black communities, outside of black institutions, until we get further into the 20th century,” said Charles McKinney, Rhodes College Africana Studies chairman.

Juneteenth, the combination of June and 19th, was not the actual day President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ordered the rebel Confederate States of America to free their enslaved on September 22, 1862. McKinney explains why Juneteenth began nearly three years later.

“This information is traveling by way of horseback riders traveling by modes of communication that are infinitely slower than modes of communication today, right? That’s why Texas stands out because it’s so far away from the halls of power, so far away from Washington DC,” explained McKinney.

Union Major General Gordon Granger read the president’s order to the people of Galveston, Texas, the last confederacy still practicing slavery.

“The General Order No. 3 said all slaves are free,” Franklin said. “Then that’s when Juneteenth became June 19, 1865 when we were free.”

Franklin says African Americans commemorate Juneteenth to honor those mothers whose children continued to be born and auctioned straight from their wombs, those enslaved men still being whipped and killed who did not know they were free all those years.

“Until we all are free, we’re not free,” she said.

The freedom celebration soon spread through African American churches across America.

“That day had been memorialized initially by African Americans in Texas, but memorialized increasingly by black folk outside of Texas moving back towards the black belt of Southeastern United States,” McKinney explained.

One of the first local records of Juneteenth’s impact is a personal ad in “The Daily Memphis Avalanche” November 24, 1874 of a daughter searching for her mother, “Julia Creamer was taken from Memphis by John Creamer.”

“You will see these ads in newspapers, starting in the 1860s, all the way into the early part of the 20th century 50 years after emancipation, 50 and 60 years in many instances after emancipation where black folk are still looking for their relatives,” said McKinney.

But the first public Juneteenth celebration in Memphis was not held for decades.

“We have been celebrating Juneteenth in the city of Memphis for the last 28 years. It was started by the late founder, Glynn Jones Reed,” said Franklin.

What’s now known as the Memphis Juneteenth Festival began in North Memphis.

”Originally started in Saint Paul (Douglas Baptist) Church where Glynn Johns Reed started it. It outgrew Saint Paul church in one year. We went to Douglass Park. Well, let me tell you about Douglass Park. It was the only park where African Americans can play golf,” explained Franklin.

The event outgrew Douglass Park and moved downtown to the park named after Robert R. Church, Memphis’ first African American millionaire.

“In Memphis, Tennessee, we love each other and we’ve just got to show that we’re working together,” said Franklin.

She’s talking about the groundswell of communities across America, including Shelby County, making Juneteenth a paid holiday. This movement emerged from national unrest when a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd.

”I believe it was able to shine a very big spotlight on racial inequality, and so many issues that so many African Americans have been dealing with for years,” said Franklin.

”Floyd and the pandemic have helped to create the context for us to to think through and think about these issues,” McKinney said.

In May, Franklin announced the Memphis Juneteenth Festival would move to Health Sciences Park where healthcare workers joined White Coats for Black Lives a year earlier to kneel for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the length of a viral video showing Floyd’s murder.

The park was formerly named after Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest Park, the KKK’s first Grand Wizard whose body is currently being relocated along with his wife’s remains.

”Kontji, we couldn’t even sit in this park right, and have a girlfriend conversation because we weren’t allowed to be in this park,” said Franklin. But on June, 18 and June 19, you’ll have not just people that look like you and me, but all cultures all races, everybody love each other and be out here celebrating Juneteenth.

She says the buzz now is like no other year.

”The most important things that I am excited about is the outdoor Juneteenth museum because it is imperative that we educate our children and we really have to educate some of our adults,” Franklin said.

The exhibit will even dedicate a section to Forrest.

“It’s important for us and our children to understand the past, but also look at towards the future because our future is bright. When we are free in our mind, we can embrace what has happened, and say where do we go from here?” said Franklin.

She hopes this Juneteenth will be a day of healing to shift the sentiment of the park from a place that depicts bloodshed to a place where beautiful memories will be made.

”This is the moment in American history where we we’re trying to make real on the promises of democracy, that’s not something that should only be celebrated by black people,” McKinney said. “This is a moment that should be celebrated by everybody who actually claims to believe in democracy.”

In Tennessee, Juneteenth is an observance, but the effort to make it an official holiday failed. In Arkansas and Mississippi, it’s a day of commemoration, but not a holiday.

Tuesday, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution making it a national holiday. That measure now heads to the House.

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