Sentimental Sunday: Celebrating Juneteenth on AriseTV

On June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, the last slaves in Texas learned of their freedom.  Known as Juneteenth, I got to celebrate that day in history by talking about my family’s history and the organization Coming to the Table on AriseTV. The interview begins at 39:51.  I hope I honored my ancestors and that you all had a Happy Juneteenth!

Follow Friday: Family and Forgotten History


The benefits of researching my family history are too numerous to list, but one that bears mentioning is how much uncovering my family’s past has taught me things about history that I never learned in school. It wasn’t until I found a newspaper anecdote  about a party my great-grandmother Josephine threw on January 1st, 1892 did I learn the first of the year was also Emancipation Day, commemorating the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation which freed all slaves.  I also learned that there were more slave narratives than those of famous former slaves like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs whose remarkable stories I read in college.  In the late 1930s, volunteers from the Federal Writer’s Project  collected slave narratives too, but of former slaves no one had ever heard of. Within those archived accounts is mention of my great great grandfather’s home.

So, I was so excited to learn that a forgotten history that I’ve been reading, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo was just awarded the Pulitzer Prize for biography.

Written by Tom Reiss, Black Count is the real life story behind the fictional Count of Monte Cristo.  The real “count” was actually Alexandre Dumas, a general in the French Army, born to a slave woman from Haiti and a French aristocrat on the run.  His real life swashbuckling inspired the novels written by his son of the same name.

As I read The Black Count, what struck me as deeply as Reiss’s captivating account of this forgotten hero, was how much attitudes about race in France changed for the worse, minimizing the General’s place in history, his African ancestry and even how we view his famous son whose books we still read over a century later.

(Before you heard it referenced in Django Unchained, did you know that the author of the classics, the Three Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo was of African ancestry?)

I’m also reading Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline’s novel based on a little known part of American history. From the mid 1850s to the early 1900s, the so called orphan trains took thousands of orphaned and abandoned children from the east coast to be adopted by families in the midwest. The main character in Kline’s book was one such child and her riveting past is revealed when she meets a teenager  who has spent her life in and out of foster homes.

Before I started reading her book, I had never heard about this part of American history. My husband’s paternal ancestors ended up in the midwest after immigrating to the USA from Finland.  Of course I can’t help but wonder now if the orphan train is a part of any of their history.

What forgotten history have you stumbled on while searching for your family’s past?

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.

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