Sankofa Studies

Free-Ish Since 1865

June 19, 2020
The Emancipation Oak at Hampton University

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, as the nation approached its third year of civil war. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

The first Southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation was under a tree in the Hampton Roads area in 1863. The Black community of the Virginia Peninsula area gathered under an oak tree and learned that they were free. That oak tree was named the “Emancipation Oak” and it still stands. It is located on the campus of Hampton University (my alma mater) and it still provides shelter, hope and inspiration for us. I always try to imagine what that day under the tree felt like. How does it feel to hear that you are free? I cannot even imagine.

But a whole TWO AND A HALF YEARS later, there were still enslaved people in Galveston, Texas. What took so long for them to get the news and for them to be set free? Apparently, there were very few Union troops to enforce the order (because they didn’t want to), but with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of Major General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, the forces were strong enough to overcome the resistance. And the last set of enslaved people were finally free on June 19, 1865.

June 19th is Juneteenth and it is the day that we celebrate our freedom and commemorate the end of the institution of slavery. We can certainly debate if slavery ever ended or if it just evolved, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Being set free brought its own set of challenges for formerly enslaved people. I mean…how do you just go from being in bondage to being free…with no resources or any idea of what you will do next? Although times were challenging, there was also thankfulness and a desire to remember the day of freedom. It served as inspiration to keep moving forward. Juneteenth became a thing, with descendants traveling back to Galveston each year to commemorate the date they were set free. The interest in Juneteenth has gone back and forth, but EYE promise you in THIS year of our Lord, we shall celebrate mightily.

I have been celebrating with my family for years now and it’s been great. This is the second year that we celebrated with our extended framily. All of the mamas of the group have been participating in the GirlTrek 21-Day Boot Camp Challenge and we were inspired by that to “cultivate joy” for our kids. It’s been rough. Between COVID-19 and quarantine and being Black in America, we all deserved some joy and a day of fun and freedom.

Do you remember the Queen Sugar Season 2 premiere episode? It was Juneteenth. I remember thinking that it was the first time I had seen a family celebrate Juneteenth on TV. Now, in true Ava fashion, the episode ended in tragedy (Micah was racially profiled and we later learned about all that he endured while he was in police custody.) In the episode, Vi let Blue have some pie before dinner and RA was bothered. Charley kept calling Micah because he was out with his fancy new car and he was late for dinner. Vi was over both of them. She said it was “Freedom Day” and they needed to let them boys be free! I kept hearing Vi in my head the whole day because we truly let the kids be free. We allowed water balloon fights and even set up a huge panda sprinkler to help with their water shenanigans. We were cool with the Super Soakers (which rarely happens)…but since Lonnie Johnson created them, we allowed it. They had water gun fights, they chased each other, they ran, they jumped, they played. They were wet, they were dirty and they were free. And when they got tired, they relaxed in the grass and talked. One of my nieces pulled out a book and read in the sunshine (my kinda girl.) We made a Juneteenth soundtrack on Apple Music and Spotify for them, with “how we get free” music. The songs ranged from “Ella’s Song” by Sweet Honey in the Rock to “Freedom” by Beyonce featuring Kendrick Lamar. Two of the girls made gifts for their friends and they were the cutest things ever!

This was a party with a purpose! There’s a reason why we are eating these things.

We created a Juneteenth menu for the kids that provided a yummy history lesson. Juneteenth should always have a little history mixed in with the fun! On the menu:

  • Fried Fish (and Shrimp): On many plantations, the workday would slow down or end around noon on Saturday. Enslaved people would use the time they had to go fishing. They would bring back their catch and fry it. Saturday nights became fish fry nights on the plantation and a chance for ancestors to have an impromptu get together. After Emancipation, the tradition continued and actually became a business for Blacks who migrated to other parts of the country.
  • Hot Sauce: Ah, yes. Hot sauce. Our fave. It’s a favorite because as Ms. Powell at “Mel’s Fish Shack” notes, you can make bad fish taste good with hot sauce. Also, fish has a mild flavor, so it’s a great way to spice up food. But hot sauce goes ways back. Africans weren’t new to seasoning their food, but once they got to the New World, one of the only options was chilies. Col. Maunsell White, a slave master in Louisiana maybe who we need to thank for the hot sauce in our bag. There was an outbreak of cholera, which he tried to control by using hot sauce as a medicine. He used a new kind of chili: tobasco. It actually helped with the epidemic! Because tobasco chilies were hard to grow, he decided to stretch it by making into a sauce…and bottling it. He started taking the sauce everywhere he went – including the the oyster bars. It was hot! And it became a thing. And the rest is history I guess.
  • Hushpuppies: You ever wonder why it’s called that? It seems like a very odd name for fried cornmeal. Several historians have traced the origin of hushpuppies back to the plantation. It is said that enslaved people would starve the master’s hound before they were planning to escape. When they were ready to peace out, they would throw the dog some fried cornmeal…to hush the puppies. Get it. Hush. Puppy. The food would distract the starving dog and give them a little bit of time to escape. Who knew?
  • Greens and Sweet Potatoes: We had kale salad to represent the greens and sweet potato fries. Both of these foods go back to the plantation where they were grown and eaten by enslaved people. And our people are still fans of greens and sweet potatoes today! Both foods are rich in vitamins and nutrients.
  • Fried Chicken: Soul food is always welcomed at the good Juneteenth celebration…or any celebration.
  • The Red Foods: Red is the color of liberation. It symbolizes the blood shed by our ancestors and perseverance. Our menu included red beans and rice, strawberries, watermelon and red velvet cupcakes.
  • The Red Drinks: You must have red drinks for Juneteenth. It goes along with the red theme. Red soda water is a Juneteenth favorite as well as any kind of drink made with hibiscus tea. We had strawberry soda, hibiscus tea punch, red kool-aid (I am aware that “red” is not a flavor, but it kinda is…so…)
  • Southern Tea Cakes: The tea cake is a simple cookie-ish recipe that was passed on by mouth. Apparently, enslaved people wanted to try to re-create the English Tea Cake which was like a cupcake. Of course, they didn’t have all of the ingredients to make that happen at their disposable. They used what they had and the end result was a cake-ish/cookie-ish hybrid. “Advocates say featuring tea cake at Juneteenth is one way to maintain their place in the culture.”
  • Random Stuff: We also had lemonade, popsicles, coleslaw, goodT white bread (Sunbeam) to soak up the fish grease and peach cobbler.
The perfect Juneteenth dessert place – watermelon, red velvet cupcakes and tea cakes.

In the midst of all of this uncertainty and with all that is going on with America’s reckoning with race, it was good to step away and celebrate us. I was reminded of Miss Luma’s chat with Evan on Cherish the Day. They discussed the LA Uprising (not riot). Evan and Miss Luma agree that struggle and joy is what we are and who we are. It’s in our DNA. Struggle and joy. Struggle and joy.

Juneteenth means so much more this year. I hope you are celebrating today. I hope you are remembering and honoring the ancestors. I hope that you find inspiration, motivation and energy for the fight ahead. I hope you cultivated joy for yourself and the young Kings and Queens in your life. I hope you find strength in knowing that if nothing else, we persevere. It’s what we do. We are survivors and Juneteenth is the perfect reminder of that.

Happy Freedom Day. Happy Jubilee Day. Happy Cel-Liberation Day. Happy Juneteenth.


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