Juneteenth

On June 19, 1865 Union Army General Gordon Granger, landed on the shores of Galveston, Texas and announced that, according to the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, all  slaves in states at war with the Union were free. However, for political and military reasons, the proclamation failed to include slaves being held in territory not at war with the United States. The Proclamation read as follows: “All enslaved person in the Confederate States of America in rebellion and not in Union hands were to be freed.” This excluded the states of Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri as well as those counties of Virginia that remained in the Union, and eventually became the state of West Virginia. So, one can argue that the Proclamation did not free any of the slaves in this country since the laws of the United States were not recognized by those states, that had seceded from the Union to include Texas.

Because Texas was geographically isolated from most the country and especially where the rebellion was taken place, the Emancipation did not reach the Lone Star State until after the Civil War was over. It was on April 9, 1865 Robert E. Lee surrendered the last major Confederate Army to General Ulysses S. Grant, at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. That happened two months before General Granger read the Proclamation in Galveston, Texas, and therefore it was not enforced in the state until after the Civil War ended. Granger arrived with two-thousand Union soldiers for the purpose of occupying Texas on behalf of the federal government.

Standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa and looking down at a large gathering of Blacks curious to learn more about their freedom, Granger read the following statement:

The people of ‘Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality and personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wagers. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

The last two sentences of Granger’s speech are informative as to what was coming with that freedom. There is no indication that the freed slaves would receive any kind of help from the government financially, and that the acres of land owned by slaveholders would be equally shared with the slaves. In other words, they were on their own and what was best for them was to remain on the plantations as assumed free men and women.

However, freedom without opportunity was not freedom at all. Black Americans began to celebrate June 19 naming it Juneteenth. There were picnics, public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation and songs. As the years passed, these celebrations became more expansive. Celebrations included rodeos, street fairs, cookouts, family reunions, park parties and Miss Juneteenth contests. But these celebrations were simply a guise to what was happening to them all over the country and in Texas. The opportunity to share in the freedoms that white America enjoyed were soon denied Blacks after the very short period of Reconstruction. By the year 1876, racism took over and Jim Crow laws ruled the day. For the most part, Blacks were relegated to sharecroppers, that was, in reality, a new version of slavery. They were the captives of an economic system that demanded they work for mere pittance in order to survive. Lynching became the mode of punishment for anyone complaining about their status in the system.

Despite the terrible oppression the people of color were forced to live under, they still managed to survive and each year they continued to celebrate Juneteenth. Instead of a celebration of freedom it became and still is a celebration of hope. Black Americans still struggle for equal opportunity. On this Juneteenth we must, as a people, make that celebration not of freedom but of the strength, greatness and endurance of our ancestors, who walked off those plantations determined not to allow anything to stand in their way of survival.

Don Ross: A Hero Seventy-Five Years After the Invasion of Black Wall Street

As we plan to commemorate the 100th year since the ugly hate-filled attack of the Greenwood community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, better known as Black Wall Street, let us also recognize the one man who brought the hidden secret to light, and that is Don Ross. It began when Ross was a high school student at Booker T. Washington in Greenwood (one of the only buildings not destroyed by fire during the invasion). His history teacher was Bill Williams, the son of John and Loula Williams, owners of the Williams Auto Repair Shop, Dreamland Theater, and the Williams Confectionery. He is seen riding in the back of his father’s convertible in that famous picture depicting the success of Black businesses in Greenwood. But their businesses were destroyed by the invasion. As a high school student, young Bill re-loaded his father’s weapons in an attempt to fight off the invaders. Almost forty years later he was still teaching high school.

One day in class, Williams decided to tell the students what happened that fateful day in 1921. Ross immediately challenged the story. There was no way that could have happened in his city because there were no traces of the carnage done. In fact, Greenwood was a thriving community with businesses, restaurants, and some of the best blues and jazz in the country was played there. Ross just did not believe so much damage could be done and so many lives taken without anyone knowing about it, at least no one in his family discussed what happened.

After class, Williams invited Ross to remain after school and showed him a scrapbook of pictures that revealed what actually did happen. Evidently the pictures of dead Black men and women in the streets, bodies loaded into trucks, men and women marching down the middle of Greenwood Avenue with their hands raised high above their heads and whites with shotguns guarding them and all the burning buildings was a complete surprise to the young man. Williams then took him over to the home of a very elderly man, Seymour Williams (no relation to  Bill) who in 1921 was the football coach at the high school and probably coached Dick Rowland, who played football for the two years he was at the school.

The two Williams’ men spent the next three hours and many days after that first meeting with Ross, telling him of how successful the Black community had been back then. They undoubtedly mentioned the names of the leaders of the community, J. B. Stradford, Andrew Smitherman, O. W. Gurley and the very successful doctor, A.C. Jackson as well as the brave war veteran, O. B. Mann. They told him how these men stood up to the invading whites that morning of June 1. They bragged about how these men, apart from O. W. Gurley, successfully were fighting off the invaders until the “airplanes came.”

   

 

Years later when Don Ross was elected to the Oklahoma State Legislature from the Greenwood community, he never forgot those meetings with the two Williams’ men. It had bothered him all the years that Oklahoma had actually hidden what happened from the world. It was a conspiracy of silence and the man Ross was determined to break that silence and bring to the light what happened to the finest economically, independent Black Community this country has ever known, by a bunch of racists filled with hate and jealousy. He pressured the state legislature to appoint a commission to examine what really happened free from prejudice and lies. As a result of his efforts the Commission to Investigate the Tulsa Riot of 1921 was authorized by the legislature in 1997 and after three years of extensive research reported their findings on February 28,2001.

Because of his untiring work and efforts, fighting against all odds by those in power who did not want the truth be told, we owe a debt of gratitude to this man who displayed the same strength and courage as did his ancestors who, on June 1, 1921, fought valiantly to protect their families and property. As the narrative on Black Wall Street increases and we move toward 2021, let us make sure that Don Ross is considered among the heroes that all Black America will salute and honor on that day.