Celebrating Juneteenth: Residents of North Philly Remember the End of Slavery in the United States
Families gathered inside Cecil B. Moore Library to commemorate Juneteenth by learning how to play drums and learn about the legacy of emancipation in Texas.
Members from the storytelling group, Progeny’s Legacy Jama, engaged the audience in stories of African-American slaves’ struggle for freedom and about what happened on June 19th, 1865.
Mama Carla Wiley, a library employee and member of Progeny’s Legacy Jama, told a story from the perspectives of people who had been enslaved and liberated on the day slavery ended.
Wiley said that the last slaves in Texas did not receive news of their freedom until two years after the Emancipation Proclamation became official. While the Emancipation Proclamation became official on Jan. 1, 1863, news that slaves were free did not reach Texas until June 19th, 1865, according to www.juneteenth.com.
One explanation is that many slave owner withheld the information from their slaves on plantations to keep their labor. Another theory claims federal troops waited for the slave owners to benefit from one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.
But even after the slaves were free, there were white people intent on preventing African-Americans from celebrating Juneteenth. Wiley said this included banning many from using indoor facilities for their Juneteenth festivities. As a result, African-Americans held outdoor celebrations with barbecues.
Wiley baked all the food at the event, including peach cobbler, cake and cookies. She also offer a fun bit of trivia, explaining that Southerners call cobbler “family pie” and it originated when families needed to eat all their fruit before it went bad.
“We tried to give them (the children) the taste, sound and feeling of that time,” she said.
Wiley dressed in a white skirt and wore a white scarf wrapped in her hair to show respect for her ancestors. She said white in African culture is worn to show reverence for the dead.
Another member of Progeny’s Legacy Jama, Mama Nzinga, told a story about a little girl who was hiding and reading a book at the time the emancipation of slaves was announced in Texas. She created a fictional girl to insert into this story to provide a different point of view for the audience.
“Juneteenth was my inspiration,” Nzinga said.
She told the audience that they are not in physical chains anymore and reminded the children to always remember their ancestors. “We still have Black lives that don’t matter,” Nzinga said.
She emphasized the need to do more work to improve the lives of people who are discriminated against. “There’s a lot of hostility to other races,” she said. “We always have to aspire to do more.”
Ron Carter, another member of the storytelling group, taught the children about the significance of drums in African culture. When slave traders kidnapped and sold Africans into slavery, African people were forbidden from using drums because drums had multiple purposes in African culture, including sending messages to each other over miles, Carter said.
“The American slave owners wanted to bend the slaves to their will,” he said. “That’s why they banned them from writing and reading.”
The slave owners may have taken away drums, but African-Americans learned to communicate through tap-dancing and storytelling.
Carter said there are many pieces and stories of African-American history that are not taught in school. As a performer who plays various characters from African-American history, such as Frederick Douglass and James Forten, Carter recognizes the importance of teaching students about Juneteenth.
Forten is not as well-known as Douglass, thanks to the history education students receive in schools, Carter said. Forten was a wealthy African-American abolitionist and businessman who lived in Philadelphia.
Carter has performed as Forten at Phialdelphia public schools such as St. Malachy School. In an effort to further educate people, Carter is creating an organization called “Ron’s Workshop Voices of Drums” for participants to learn about different percussion instruments such as drums, shakers and clave rhythm sticks.
Not only do students not know of people such as Forten, but many are unaware of Juneteenth as the day that enslaved Texans were freed. Many people believe that slaves were suddenly released from bondage all over the country once the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
In fact, Wiley herself said she did not know about Juneteenth until she was in her twenties.
Wiley, Carter and Nzinga spoke about what Juneteenth means to them.
“Juneteenth is a reminder of how certain segments within this American society try to hide the truth from the public at large,” Carter said. “I have to keep vigilant for information. You have to continue to seek knowledge.”
Mama Carla agrees that lies are told and truths obscured.
“For me, Juneteenth means truth,” she said. “I think there’s been a lot of lies told to African people about themselves. People have a real big fear of telling the bad things that happened in the past.”