An Inspiring, Educational Juneteenth Celebration
By Nancy Spannaus
June 21, 2021–“By virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons. … And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”
These ringing words, which conclude President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, finally became a reality in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. It was then that the U.S. Military, including a large contingent of U.S. Colored Troops (USCT), arrived in that city, and, finding that African-Americans there were still enslaved, finally enforced the order issued more than two and a half years before.
That action was dubbed Juneteenth, and on June 15, 2021, it was recognized as a National Holiday by the U.S. Congress. Celebrations that had already been scheduled became more joyous and spanned the nation. A step for justice had been taken.
I was privileged to attend the celebration in Loudoun County, Virginia that was sponsored by the Loudoun County Juneteenth Committee, and emceed by Steve Williams, who is both the local chairman and the President of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. Approximately 100 people congregated at a local park under the threat of rain, and were treated to a program that was both joyous and, by design, profoundly educational.
As I report on the event, I will give special attention to what I learned. I feel certain that many readers, whether they attended a celebration or not, will be enlightened, and inspired to dig more into some hidden history of our nation.
After the blowing of a horn and an opening prayer, a contingent of “Buffalo Soldiers” raised both the American and Juneteenth flags. For those who don’t know, as I didn’t, the Juneteenth flag was created in 1997 to symbolize the victory for African-Americans that day in 1865. A trumpeter heralded the flag-raising with a combination of the Star Spangled Banner and the African-American “national anthem,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
The Buffalo Soldiers were from the Chaplain (Captain) H.V. Plummer Chapter of this group of re-enactors of the black regiments who take their name from black troops mustered after the Civil War to patrol the Western United States. They were well-known for their battles against hostile Native American tribes, as well as smugglers, poachers, and the like. Their descendants participated in subsequent wars, and, as one of the re-enactors told me, they are the predecessors of the Tuskegee Airmen; the Airmen simply exchanged horses for airplanes.
The keynote address was then given by the Chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, Phyllis Randall. Randall, who is African-American, took as her theme, “Who is Independence Day actually for?” That theme echoes a famous address given by the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass back in 1876 (see my post on Douglass’ view of Lincoln), but, unlike Douglass, Randall did not condemn the Fourth of July as the “white man’s holiday.” Rather, she chose to emphasize the courageous struggle to give citizenship to the formerly enslaved.
There were two points Randall emphasized which I found particularly interesting: the Dred Scott case and the final provocation that led to the assassination of President Lincoln. Randall presented Scott as a man who chose to fight for his rights of citizenship all the way up to the Supreme Court—a major accomplishment in itself. While she then read from the hideous ruling of Chief Justice Taney, that denied African-Americans could be citizens, she stressed that Scott’s fighting spirit was a moment for pride.
Randall also highlighted the fact that it was President Lincoln’s statement, in his last speech on April 11, that he wished black soldiers to have the right to vote (i.e., to citizenship), that led to getting him killed. Specifically, Lincoln said: “It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.” John Wilkes Booth, in the audience, said this was the last straw, and three days later, Lincoln was dead.
Randall concluded her speech by calling on all Americans, black and white, to join her in celebrating both the Fourth and Juneteenth. Both apply to all of us. And we owe it to both those who fought for black rights, and those who will come after us, to work to make the world a better place.
Emcee Williams presented Randall with a copy of the Juneteenth flag, and explained its symbolism. The white star symbolizes both Texas and the North Star (followed by escaping slaves). The blue field (on top) symbolizes the horizon of hope, and the red field (on the bottom) the ground watered by the blood of the enslaved.
The Emancipation Proclamation
Walter Owens, president of the Carver Alumni Association and the Emancipation Day Celebration, next spoke on the subject of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. And once again, the audience found much new to learn about.
Owens elaborated on the history of celebrations around the Proclamation, which, you may recall, was written in September 1862, with the intent of it going into effect on January 1, 1863. Emancipation has been the cause of 127 years of celebrations here in Loudoun, he reported. But even before the “Emancipation Event,” African-Americans began to prepare. Owens described the tradition of Watch Night or Freedom Eve, December 31, when the community would get together to eat and pray, staying up all night in anticipation of the great event.
As for President Lincoln’s decision, Owens described a meeting Lincoln had with two of his Generals, in which he informed them of how he had prayed and made a “vow to God” that he would carry out the pledge for emancipation if the Union won a victory.
Owens then read the full Emancipation Proclamation – an experience probably few have ever experienced. While much is in legalese, including the listing of Confederate-dominated regions where the military order would go into effect, the conclusion was striking. First, of course, that all the enslaved in those named regions were to be free. Second, that the military and government of the United States was pledged to defend that freedom. And third, that the freedmen were eligible to be enlisted in the Union Army. (Indeed, more than 200,000 African Americans enlisted, and played a significant role in winning the war.)
Calls to Education and Action
The two next speakers were Donna Bohannon, chair of the Black History Committee of the Friends of Balch Library, and Koran Saines, the Sterling representative on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. Bohannon read the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the one which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except in the case of punishment for a crime. She urged the audience to reflect on how that exception has impacted African-Americans today, and made a plea for the audience to work to eliminate the gaps in their, and our, knowledge of their history.
Saines began by noting the irony of the fact that in the 1920s Loudoun County was once the home of black farmers like the Nokes family (which held hundreds of acres and was able to donate land for schools), yet the county had a very ugly history in race relations decades later. He noted the decision by Leesburg in the 1960s to literally cement up their public pool, rather than obey a court order to desegregate. He concluded by urging those present to actively join the fights against discrimination today.
In Galveston on June 19, 1865
The concluding speech, given by Steve Williams, was a history lesson on the events of Galveston which I only wish I could repeat in full. Here are some highlights.
Williams traced the activities of two regiments of U.S. Colored Troops (official name), who were on their way to the Mexican border, but were forced by storms to land in Galveston that day. Seeing that the black residents of that area were still enslaved, these troops pressured General Granger to take action, or they would do so themselves. Thus, Williams said, Granger issued General Order 3, declaring that all the enslaved were free. While he stayed on his ship, the USCT distributed the news among the residents.
This initiative by the Colored Troops was in line with their history of aggressivity in the war. Williams recounted that, after participating in the battle of Petersburg, these troops insisted on marching all night to trap General Robert E. Lee; that action allowed the white troops to force his surrender, once they arrived later. It was this kind of fervor and willingness that led General Grant to send an Army Corps of USCT to protect the Texas/Mexican border from anticipated pro-Confederacy action by the French occupiers of Mexico.
There was one special man among these Colored Troops, Williams reported, whose name was Private William Costley. Costley was the first black male to have been freed by Abraham Lincoln, in 1841! Lawyer Lincoln had defended Costley’s mother Nance in that year, successfully freeing her and her children from involuntary servitude. William Costley was one and a half years old at the time.
But this action by Lincoln was not unique, Williams went on. Lawyer Lincoln won freedom for the enslaved in 35 cases, long before he had the power as President. So much for the stories about Abe being a “johnny-come-lately” to the fight for freedom.
The lesson of the story, Williams concluded, was the importance of blacks taking action for their freedom. The same could be said for all Americans in their responsibility as citizens.
With the speeches ended, the gathering turned to music and celebration.
Nancy Spannaus is the author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street, the Core Principles of the American System of Economics.