I grew up hearing my grandmother’s stories of how the 19th of June was celebrated when she was a child in Southwest Arkansas. She said the community would only work a half day, then make a picnic lunch to take out to a field where the men would play baseball and they would all eat and listen to the singing groups that would come by for the occasion. Fanilla Cobb was born in 1910 and she taught me to care about the holiday she called the 19th of June, now more commonly known as Juneteenth, because of how her grandfather claimed his freedom.
Griffin Henry Belk was 17 years old, enslaved, and working with a mule to plow a field when a white man rode by and told him he was free. According to my grandmother, my great great grandfather then told the mule, “You go your way, and I’ll go mine” and they both claimed their freedom.
This story seems to have taken place some significant time after the Emancipation Proclamation since it doesn’t reference the stories of people (often in Union-occupied areas) waiting together to hear news of the January 1863 signing of the Emancipation Proclamation or of the celebrations that sometimes happened afterwards. And people in the US South don’t typically plow fields in January. Communication technology being what it was then, word of the Proclamation would likely have been slow to spread to rural, sparsely populated areas. And if Belk’s enslaver knew of the Emancipation Proclamation at all, he clearly felt no need to tell Belk, especially since the Confederate states would not have recognized President Lincoln’s authority anyway. It’s no wonder my grandmother frequently reminded me that, despite what I was being taught in school, “Lincoln didn’t free anybody.”
The 19th of June has long been my favorite holiday, in part because it felt so personal and so limited to a particular people in a particular part of the country. When I was growing up in Little Rock, there was always a Juneteenth Marade (combination march and parade) to celebrate, but the holiday wasn’t well known across the whole state. I left Arkansas for college in Pennsylvania and then graduate school in Georgia, and most people I told about Juneteenth had never heard of it. Still, for years, I’d throw big Juneteenth parties in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park in an attempt to recreate my grandmother’s stories from her childhood. We’d have a cookout, play volleyball, listen to music, dance, laugh, tell stories, and generally have a wonderful time.
But it wasn’t until today, June 19, 2021, this new mass market Juneteenth, that I thought about the other part of my grandmother’s story that I should work to recreate. In the 1910s and 1920s (and likely before), my family in rural Southwest Arkansas, a family of limited means living in a time and place of often intense racial discrimination and violence, still had enough control over their lives to routinely take a half day holiday that was meaningful to them. Unlike many of us, they did not have to wait for a Congress, or a Presidential signature, or an email from HR to know how they could use their time. They were always already free. On this June the 19th, I think of my grandmother, my great great grandfather and so many others who model personal and community autonomy and freedom despite the odds being against them. On the 19th of June and on every day, I strive to be like them.