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Remembering Juneteenth

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By Demaris Webster

I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, and to this day, I still call the city home. Both of my parents were also born and still reside in the city, but like most Black families in Chicago, this isn’t where our roots lie. My maternal grandmother was from a town called Mason, Tennessee, and my paternal grandfather was from Tillar, Arkansas. Respectively, they both migrated north to Chicago during the Great Migration to escape persecution in the South and better economic opportunities  

My parents divorced when I was six, and my mother and grandmother primarily raised me. I was always a curious child — something my mother, an educator by profession, encouraged. Often I would ask my grandmother about her childhood and what it was like living in the South, as she didn’t speak much about it without being prompted. Her family owned a car, and at that time, that equated “wealth”. Despite their show of “wealth”, her family couldn’t drive past a white family without fear of “kicking dust” into their car. They were still bound by the Jim Crow era laws that silently lingered. My grandmother told me many stories like this one, stories that boiled down to the fact that being Black in America is to struggle but persist.

In third grade, slavery and segregation were introduced in my social studies class — and one day we learned about the Emancipation Proclamation. I came home — as I did most days — eager to tell my mom about all that I’d learned about the freeing of the slaves, but this time, her reaction was different. Normally she’d act surprised and nod as if I was teaching her something new, but this time her response came with a swift correction: “Well, all the slaves weren’t freed after Lincoln’s proclamation.” The conversation abruptly ended, but curiosity lingered — I needed to know more. When I later brought it up with my grandmother, her response was similar. Even at a young age, I knew that their responses indicated frustration, and I didn’t bring it up again. 

Fast-forward to undergrad. A friend of mine from Texas was talking about her family’s  Juneteenth celebration. She spoke about Juneteenth as if it was something universal, something that I should have known. The first chance I got, I looked it up, and as I read, my mind immediately went back to telling my mom about the Emancipation Proclamation. This is what she meant when she said that all the slaves weren’t free after Lincoln’s proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation technically only applied to slaves who lived near Union lines and were able to escape their plantations. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865 that the remaining slaves of Galveston, TX learned that the Civil War was over and the state’s remaining slaves were officially free. 

In Texas, Juneteenth is just as significant as Independence day for a lot of Black families. I can only speculate, but there seems to be an internal struggle over how much of the South to leave behind when Black families migrated North. I can’t help but wonder if  this struggle was the reason my grandmother didn’t want to elaborate more.

Since learning of Juneteenth, I’ve made it a personal mission to remind my friends and family of the occurrence. The holiday feels more important now than ever before. The climate of our country, the regression in race relations, and our inability to coexist make this holiday more relevant than ever before. Progress has been made, but recurring acts of police brutality and systematic acts of racism are an indicator that we have a long way to go.  Our country needs to acknowledge the bloody soil we walk on daily — this is a cog in the wheel of progress. Juneteenth is not only a celebration of freedom and justice for all Black people but a reminder that freedom and justice are often delayed. It’s an opportunity for us to begin a dialogue on how we, as a country, can progress together and right the wrongs of the past and those that still exist today. 

Photo: George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center, Juneteenth Memorial statue.

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