Happy Emancipation Day, 2013!

My grandmother, Louise Walton and our family's dog, Sheffy.

“On January 1, 1892, Miss Josephine Burton, Ocean Springs’ charming belle gave a very nice surprise party for her pastor, Rev. I. C. Rucker, assisted by Mrs. A.B. Stuart and Miss Violet Matthews.  A collection of $6.05 was taken, after which cake and lemonade were served.”

So, 119 years ago today, my great grandmother was throwing a party with her sister, Violet and her brother Alfred’s wife.  When I first read this notice in the personal section of the Southwestern Christian Advocate’s January 14, 1892 edition, I assumed it was a regular New Year’s Day party.  But after reading the next week’s issue, I noticed how another writer, Ada Smith of Sturgis, Mississippi, referred to January 1st as Emancipation Day.  During her church’s evening service, Ms. Smith stated that a professor read and explained the Emancipation Proclamation. On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect and freed all slaves. Today marks the 150th anniversary of the historic document.

Since her mother and brother were born into slavery, I have a feeling that my great-grandmother, Josephine was celebrating the signing of that monumental document as much as she was the beginning of a new year and her beloved pastor. Josephine was also a devout Christian, her husband, James was a Methodist Episcopal minister, so perhaps the party was also an extension of Watch Night.

Methodism founder John Wesley originated Watch Night services in the mid-18th century, sometimes calling them Covenant Renewal services, according to the United Methodist website. But Watch Night has a  special significance in in the African-American community dating back to the days of slavery.
At the end of the year, owners tallied their property and often sold slaves to pay debts, the website said. New Year’s Eve was often the last night a family of slaves would be together.  Then, when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which was set to take effect on Jan. 1, 1863, slaves sat up the night before, waiting for their freedom to arrive at midnight.

Even though I grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal church and went to church on New Year’s Eve with my parents, I never knew the history behind Watch Night connected to slavery.  I only learned of that part last night because some friends at Coming to the Table mentioned how they would be participating in Watch Night as well as the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. I wonder why the slavery piece of the Watch Night tradition was never addressed in my AME congregation? Was it deliberate or simply never passed down from one generation to the next and, like a faulty link, broke the chain of this history?

This can easily happen.

I thought I knew all there was to know about my grandmother.  I lived just a few miles from her growing up and spent most summer days with her until I was 11.  She was like a second mother. So, I was shocked to learn several new things about her while she was visiting with me this holiday season – things that I wouldn’t have known if it weren’t for my new dog.

On the first night of Kwanzaa while eating dinner, Granny commented that our new dog was so big, he reminded her of the pony she had as a girl.  I never knew she had a pony.  It was a Shetland pony she said, which is funny since my dog’s name begins with the same “she” sound. Her pony was her transportation to school. She hated when she had to miss school because first off, she liked school and second, it usually meant she had to stay home and slaughter the pigs on her family’s farm.  She thought of them as pets, not food.  In solidarity with her condemned bovine friends,  she swore she’d never eat chitterlings the way her school pals did, but  eventually, she caved.  Indeed it was my grandmother who gave me my first (and last) taste of pig intestine.

I also never knew that my grandma could handle a gun.  She learned how to use a winchester rifle when she was about seven she said for hunting rabbits.  My grandma was a regular Laura Ingalls Wilder, just black and from Oklahoma.  Had my dog not cozied up to her during dinner, these details about my grandma’s first decade of life, the time she refers to most often now that she is nearing 100, would have been entirely lost.  And to think, I didn’t even want a new dog.

How are you celebrating Emancipation Day?

Sources: The Southwestern Christian Advocate, January 14, 1892 and January 21, 1892.

Treasure Chest Thursday: My 60 year-old Grandparents earn their GEDs

My maternal grandparents, Alonzo and Louise Walton featured in a New Jersey newspaper after graduating High School in their 60s.

When my maternal grandparents were in their 60s, they decided to go back to school to get their GEDs. Alonzo Walton and Louise Coleman Walton both grew up on farms around the turn of the century.  The Waltons owned theirs, and the Colemans were sharecroppers.  Like a lot of farming/sharecropping children, their hands were needed to work the land more than to do math equations in school. Alonzo in Pine Bluff, Arkansas and Louise in Clinton, Oklahoma both quit school around sixth or seventh grade to help their families survive.

But their thirst for learning didn’t end there.  So, when my grandfather retired from the Air Force after about 40 years of service and all of their grandchildren but me were attending college, they enrolled in PembertonTownship’s Adult Evening High School Program in New Jersey. It took them two tries to pass the final exam.  But pass they did and in 1980 they received their GEDs.

The above photo is from a story in Pemberton’s “Time Advertiser” newspaper featuring the Waltons, the only grandparents enrolled at Burlington County College. After the article came out, the newspaper sent my grandparents the black and white photo they used and my grandparents framed it and hung it on the wall.  I’d stare at that photo and read the article tacked under it every time I went to their house.  It was a constant reminder that the education I was receiving as a right, my grandparents treasured as a privilege. The value of education is probably the biggest lesson I learned from my grandparents without them ever having to say a word.

Howard Zinn – The People's Historian

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSTqXme9RCk&feature=response_watch]

Howard Zinn, popular historian, died last week before I had a chance to finish his volume, A People’s History of the United States, 1492 – Present. I’ve been reading it on and off for the past several years, packing it along in my beach bag or my carry-on to keep me company on plane trips to visit my grandparents.

I first heard of Zinn while watching the movie, “Good Will Hunting.”  Matt Damon’s character tells his psychiatrist that Zinn’s book would knock him on his ass.  The scene shown above is one of my favorites: Damon tries to impress a pretty Harvard co-ed, a battle of wits ensues,  and Damon and Ben Affleck go on to win Oscars. I looked Zinn up after that. Maybe my dusty screenplay just needed a few Howard Zinn references to pump some life into it!  None of his quotes fit into my story of a new college graduate pretending to be the daughter of a famous singer in order to advance her career. But Zinn’s work as a professor at Spellman’s all black women’s college, with the organization SNCC, and as mentor to Alice Walker fit my worldview.  He was someone I needed to read.

So far, I’m up to the chapter, “Slavery without Submission, Emancipation without Freedom.”  I can’t seem to get past a letter from President Lincoln to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune which begins,

“Dear Sir:…I have not meant to leave any one in doubt…My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery.”  Never read that about Lincoln in American history in high school.

Zinn’s concise and engaging style told history from the perspective of the everyman:  blacks and women, immigrants and factory workers, Native Americans and the poor.  Like Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Classic Slave Narratives introduced to me in college, Zinn’s treatise let me imagine history from the place of my people, not just their oppressors.  It encouraged me to tell my own history.

Who else’s perspective do you think still needs telling in American history?

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