Growing up in the Baltimore area in the 1960s, slavery was a word that conjured such feelings of disgust and anger, it was never uttered in the home of Morning Sunday Hettleman.
So Hettleman felt surprise when she first heard about Juneteenth, an annual June event that doesn't just acknowledge slavery but celebrates the freeing of the last slaves in America in 1865. Learning about Juneteenth in 1988 turned Hettleman's silence into pride in her ancestors' fight for freedom, and she began organizing celebrations in Baltimore a year later.
Yesterday, hundreds of African-Americans showed up at St. Mary's Park in Baltimore for Hettleman's 12th Juneteenth Festival to toast liberty and carry on the tradition of honoring their enslaved forefathers.
"Fourth of July freed the land, but Juneteenth freed my people," said Hettleman, president of the National Juneteenth Museum in Baltimore, which now organizes the event. "Juneteenth is about celebrating the spirit of the African people that brought them out of slavery and helped them to survive."
African-Americans began celebrating Juneteenth on June 19, 1865, when Union Gen. Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, and told slaves they were free - more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Folklore offers myriad explanations for why word of emancipation took such a long time to reach Texas: One account is that a messenger carrying the news to Texas was murdered; another suggests that slave masters in the state received word but did not pass the information to their slaves.
One thing is certain - from that June 19th forward, the date took on a greater significance than July 4 for many African-Americans as the commemorating event in the fight for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Lula Briggs Galloway, president and founder of the National Association of Juneteenth Lineage, based in Saginaw, Mich., said African-Americans had long questioned the hypocrisy of celebrating an Independence Day when hundreds of thousands remained enslaved on plantations.
Galloway said that once liberation occurred that June 19, African-Americans embraced the date to commemorate their independence, and the celebrations spread across the country as slaves moved from Texas and other parts of the South after emancipation in search of work. She said Juneteenth celebrations waned slightly in the early 20th century as the first generation of free blacks worked hard to eke out livings. But the event regained popularity about 40 years ago as African-Americans began planning family reunions around the date, she said.
Today, Juneteenth celebrations draw thousands annually in cities throughout the South, and Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and Delaware have declared the date a state holiday. The Washington-based National Juneteenth Observance Foundation gathered at the Lincoln Memorial yesterday to lobby for the date to become a national holiday. Juneteenth groups across the country are lobbying the United States Postal Service to issue a commemorative stamp.
In Maryland, Hettleman testified before the Maryland Senate Finance Committee in March to have Juneteenth declared a nonpaid state holiday. The bill died in committee this year, but Hettleman hopes passage will happen next year. In the meantime, her annual celebrations in Baltimore have grown from a crowd of 100 in 1989 to several thousand last year.
At St. Mary's Park yesterday afternoon, a few hundred showed up to watch a Haitian folkloric dance troupe, hear a gospel choir, and check booths featuring exhibits about Juneteenth and offering information about the United States Colored Troops that fought in the Civil War.
Susan Bonds, 43, said she drove an hour and a half from Waldorf for the festival yesterday morning because she wanted to attend a large Juneteenth celebration with fellow African-Americans. Bonds, an occupational therapist, said she first heard about Juneteenth while attending Kansas State University in 1989. She had never attended a festival until yesterday because she has lived either overseas or in small towns without such celebrations.
Having recently moved to Waldorf, she leaped at the chance to take her 4-year-old daughter, Grace, to a Juneteenth Festival to learn more about their culture. "A lot of times today, the richness of our freedom is getting lost," Bonds said. "We don't remember the prices that were paid for our freedom. It's very important for us to hold onto the past, the struggles we've been through."
Juneteenth's lessons about slavery and freedom were not lost on the young. Travis Partee, 10, had learned about black history in Pimlico Elementary School and through talks with his mother, JoAnn, about his heritage.
As Travis wandered through the park yesterday, browsing the exhibits, he was quick to espouse the importance of a festival like Juneteenth: "We're here, I guess, to celebrate freedom," the fifth-grader said.
"If one person was free and another person was a slave, then it would be unfair," he said. "It's nice to have freedom because you can go around and vote without them telling you, 'You cannot vote.'"
For some, yesterday's festival was bittersweet. Brian Bagley, 21, a professional dancer from Baltimore, said when he first heard about Juneteenth two years ago, he felt it was "a slap in the face."
They "set us free, but we were supposed to be free in the first place," Bagley said. "And I was thinking to myself, There were people down in Texas getting away with having slaves when they were supposed to be free? ... It's a reminder that we need to keep fighting."