Reflections/Jonathan Gramling

Jonathan Gramling

Juneteenth Reflections

To be honest, I don’t think I had really heard of Juneteenth Day until Mona Adams Winston and Annie Weatherby-Flowers established Madison’s celebration back in 1989. The first time that I met Annie and Mona was when I was farmed out by the Madison Urban League to help make sense of the books of the Madison Inner-City Council on Substance Abuse — everything ended up being cool — and the Juneteenth celebration was using MICCSA as its fiscal agent. Well since they were legally a part of MICCSA, I had to review their finances as well and I remember Annie and Mona looking at me with a little suspicion. I didn’t blame them. And yet the three of us founded Kujichagulia-MCSD about 17 years later to independently sponsor the Juneteenth celebration and I was its treasurer. I guess they liked what they saw after all.

But I did learn about June 19, 1865 when the last Africans who were slaves learned that they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation back on January 1, 1863. While President Abraham Lincoln was an abolitionist by this time, the proclamation was also a wartime tool because it only freed the Africans who were slaves who resided in the Confederacy, which Texas was a part of. Others in areas aligned with the Union were not freed.

And this was an extremely pivotal point to American history over the next 150 years and determined the place that African Americans held in American society.

While the last of the Africans who were enslaved learned of their freedom on June 19, 1865 and rejoiced in the streets and the Juneteenth Day celebration was born, it meant that most African Americans — remember that there were African American freedmen throughout the period of slavery — were politically free. And that freedom lasted a little over 10 years.

It must be images that I remember from the mini-series “Roots” that I saw back in 1976 when I attended Alcorn State University. After the Civil War, it depicted African Americans walking along roads looking for their families and trying to find a way to support themselves. They were free, but they had no means to support themselves.

It was U.S. Senator Thaddeus Stevens from Pennsylvania who promoted “40 acres and a mule” as a way for the newly freed African Americans to have a means to support themselves and have an economic foundation to protect their freedom. In terms of the southern economic system, it was either support the African American citizens by granting them 40 acres and a mule or making them ripe for the picking of a thinly-disguised “neo slavery” called sharecropping.

America failed its newest citizens back then and its implications continue to severely impact us to this day.

Instead of giving African Americans a piece of economic democracy with 40 acres and a mule like it, in essence, gave my ancestors in Wisconsin and settlers in Kansas and beyond, America chose to place them in a new bondage through sharecropping.

And how big of a difference would 40 acres and a mule make? Well one thing that I learned during the 100 anniversary observance of the Tulsa Massacre and the destruction of the Black Wall Street in Tulsa was that the Black Wall Street was made possible by the 40 acres and a mule that the African Americans received in compensation for their enslavement by some American Indian tribes in Indian Territory, which comprised the states of Oklahoma, Kansas and other areas. Ironically, it was the U.S. government that forced the tribes to give reparations to the newly freed slaves, reparations it wasn’t willing to give, 40 acres and a mule, to its newly freed African Americans in U.S. territory. It’s a trend of sponsoring freedom everywhere except it’s own borders that would persist for 150 years.

And what was the result of the newly freed African Americans receiving the reparations? Well it resulted in the creation of wealth and the development of a complex society that created the Black Wall Street that was a part of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

How America would have been different if all African Americans had received 40 acres and a mule. Our economic and social landscape would have been radically different. The economic and social make-up of the African American community would be completely different and we would have achieved true equality much sooner in our nation’s history.

And so what was the reaction of Euro-American residents of Tulsa to this wealth creation and resulting freedom? Did they decide to engage in commerce with the African American businesspeople to enhance their own wealth and enhance the economic activity and strength of Oklahoma? No. Instead they destroyed the basis of that wealth and murdered many of the residents of the Greenwood area.

And what happened when African Americans exercised their newly gained political rights under the 15th Amendment? Well the first two African American U.S. Senators were sent to Washington by the Mississippi legislature. At that time, Mississippi was majority African American. And many African Americans were elected to state and local office in Mississippi.

And what was the Euro-American reaction? Did they work hand in hand with the African American elected officials to create a better and a thriving Mississippi for all? No they formed the Ku Klux Klan and drove African Americans from political office and power through violence and intimidation and created a minority-ruled government.

How different life could have been in Mississippi and the U.S. if people had only done the right thing instead of giving in to their base and violent instincts.

And I can’t help but feel that history is repeating itself today.

Celebrate Juneteenth!