On the national front, this week brought refreshing news.
That’s despite fanatical opposition in some circles to acknowledge the cruelty that permeates the history and, in many cases, present day lives of African Americans. The good news comes despite the fact that efforts to pass a voting rights bill have stalled, as have attempts to move forward on police reform.
Amid those disappointments, stoked by continued posturing, phony patriotism and hypocritical religiosity that rationalizes the immorality of racism, there is a sign of goodwill.
This week, the U.S. Congress passed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. President Joe Biden swiftly signed it into law, making Juneteenth a federal holiday.
Terri Lipsey Scott, executive director of the (newly re-titled) Woodson African American Museum of Florida, is overjoyed. “My heart is filled with gratitude for the leadership of those in our nation who recognize the importance of the inclusion of the African Americans’ plight as part of the nation’s history,” she said.
For those who don’t know – it’s not something everyone was taught as part of American history – Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day U.S. Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and issued an order notifying the people that “in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
The Civil War was over and President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation – almost two and a half years earlier. As for the official handwritten record of General Order No. 3, issued that first Juneteenth by Granger, it is preserved at the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.
Declaration of the newest national holiday comes almost 38 years after President Ronald Reagan signed legislation creating a federal holiday to commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In what will be a serendipitous celebration of the historic decision, the Woodson Museum is opening an exhibition Saturday – Juneteenth – featuring work of emerging and established Black artists from the Tampa Bay area and throughout the Southeast. For Reverberations, hosted by the James Museum in St. Peterburg’s downtown, Scott turned to her friend Desmond Clark, principal of St. Cate Fine Arts, to help assemble the exhibition of 60 pieces from 23 artists.
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I asked Clark what he thought of the nation’s newest federal holiday.
“There’s a bit of irony to recognizing Juneteenth as a National Holiday, because most schools are not allowed to teach why this day is even important for American history, let alone Black history,” the curator of Reverbertions said.
“The truth is that independence for Black Americans was not in 1776. Eighty-nine years later, after a bloody war, slavery as a federated institution should have ended, but even then, it still existed. Blacks finally had the legal right to leave, but didn’t dare for fear of being beaten or even killed, as many of their fellow slaves had done. Today, equity for Blacks is still an issue.”
The new federal holiday “is a victory that’s bittersweet,” Clark said.
“And that’s why exhibitions like Reverberations are essential. The 60 works in this exhibition tell not only the story of racism in America, but also the resilience of Black Americans in the face of never-ending struggles.”
- Carl Devine is a descendant of the Ocoee Massacre, during which white mobs killed and chased Black residents from their homes in November 1920. A prominent Black resident was lynched. That November, Blacks in Ocoee had dared to try to vote. Devine told me his grandparents, John and Roxie Williams, were among those forced to flee. They lost their land, all of their possessions, and his granddaddy’s African Methodist Episcopal church was burned.
It’s small wonder that local newspaper articles have referred to Devine – executive director of Banyan Tree Project Inc., a social services organization that focuses on HIV/AIDS prevention, housing and other programs ias an activist. In the 1990s, Devine was part of a small group that launched a Juneteenth commemoration in St. Petersburg.
“We formed a group on the steps of the Enoch Davis Center,” he recalled, adding he paid for a Juneteenth booklet and special T-shirts. The organizers voted to make Jeanie Blue its president. For years, she remained the face of the celebration.
Now Juneteenth is a national holiday. “I am ecstatic, because it shows us being a part of this community,” Devine said.
“It is time that they recognize that we have been part of this country for 400 years and we have been disrespected for 400 years. They want to force me to celebrate the Fourth of July. It’s not my celebration. When they were fighting for their freedom, they still had Black people enslaved.”
This Juneteenth is being marked by a variety of events in the Tampa Bay area. Jabaar Edmond, who is active in St. Petersburg’s Black community, said the increase in Juneteenth activities started last year with growing interest in the Black Lives Matter movement. “What I’ve learned is these events are good for morale. They are good for the community,” Edmond said, particularly mentioning businesses in the city’s southern neighborhoods that have experienced hardship because of the pandemic.
Along the same vein, Scott also pointed to increased public awareness of social justice issues for heightened interest in Juneteenth.
She shared an interesting fact. Black people in Florida didn’t get emancipation until May 20, 1865, a month before enslaved Blacks in Texas got word that they were free.
“What is most meaningful to me is that we are now learning the history,” she said. “Juneteenth wasn’t something that we discussed in our history books. The awareness of African American history and acknowledging it in such a way that it brings meaning and richness to the lives of Americans in these United States speaks volumes.”
The Woodson Museum is striving to share that story. It is because of the limitations of its current quarters – a former public housing community center – that the prized artwork curated by Clark is being hosted at the spectacular, modern James Museum.
Scott explained how it happened: “Last year, I was really reaching out to allies and as a result, I got this wonderful call from Laura Hine, executive director of the James Museum, extending an invitation to the Woodson to make use of their rotating gallery space. I was overwhelmed with gratitude.”
Scott hopes the exhibition whets the community’s appetite for what a new Woodson Museum, with its promise of climate-controlled galleries, will be able to offer. The museum is in the “soft phase” of a capital campaign to raise $26.5 million for its new building.
Scott has high hopes for Juneteenth 2022, specifically, that the museum “will be turning dirt” on its new site across from the Historic Manhattan Casino.
And why not? How many could have predicted that 2021 would have seen a new federal holiday acknowledging slavery and its end?