19 Jun 2023


Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: American Empire, Bobby's World, Contemporary Ethics, Culture, Luke, Milwaukee, Race Relations
Juneteenth is a major event in Milwaukee

Today is Juneteenth (Also known as Freedom Day)

I knew nothing of Juneteenth growing up around Florence, Alabama. I literally had never heard of it. Whether this was due to being absolutely out of touch with culture or what I do not know. But as I recall, my first experience of Juneteenth was in Milwaukee, WI around 2001.

At the time I preached for the Southside Church. My wife (at the time) and I became friends and hung out a lot with a black couple, Candice and Corey. Corey was, in fact, chairperson of the search committee that hired me at Southside. Our kids were the same age, we had lots in common, etc. Corey had been a business and religion major at Pepperdine. We became good friends while there. We hung out regularly at their home, had dinner together, played games, etc. I thought Candace & Corey were an interracial couple, that she was white. But she corrected me kindly but firmly. She is black (part of my education!) though as light as my own wife of the time. It was one of my learning experiences of the complexity of “race” in America, especially with the so called “One Drop Rule.” At the time he was an executive at Miller Brewing (yes Milwaukee is NOT the Bible Belt). Corey is now VP at a large banking institution.

Red “Pop” for Juneteenth

We were invited by Candace and Corey to tag along to a Juneteenth celebration in June of 2001. We were not sure what the protocols were. We were told to just relax, appreciate it, soak it up, have fun, eat and learn. So that is what we did. It was a huge event. And it was great.

There was what I call a street fair and a parade too. The Emancipation Proclamation and General Order No.3 were read publicly (I was unfamiliar with General Order No.3 at the time). Some traditional spirituals were sung (Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Go Down Moses, My Lord, What a Morning and others) and Lift Every Voice and Sing (and others) and it may be the first time I remember hearing (or recognizing) John Coltrane’s music. There was a Miss Juneteenth as I recall. It was a great experience. We ended up at Candace & Corey’s house with a lot of other people and had BBQ. We had red soda (or “pop” as they say in Milwaukee) and red velvet cake made by Candace. It was a time of remembering. It was a time of celebration too.

Over the years, we ended up at several more celebrations during our time in Milwaukee and then in Tucson and now Antioch. It allowed our family to get to know the story of our friends, to see part of America that we were unfamiliar with, and just know that July 4 did not cover everyone. Indeed, “Independence Day” was not “Freedom Day” for a good number of people in fact. This in my opinion is an important truth to embrace.

Red Velvet Cake is a Juneteenth must

Juneteenth began in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1866. There were other, independent, emancipation celebrations in other parts of the South too. It was a church centered celebration in the beginning and spread. During the Great Migrations (on which see Isabel Wilkerson’s amazing book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration) these descendants of American slaves brought “Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle” and other places like Milwaukee (Wilkerson, p.240f). By the 1920s and 1930s it had evolved into the fair type atmosphere we experienced. In the 1970s celebrating the African-American arts (music, literature, theater) emerged as a way of affirming the freedom celebrated on this day. Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth in 1980.

Today, Grace of Arms of Antioch is one of several organizations hosting Juneteenth events. Yesterday afternoon there was a big celebration at Williamson Park here in Antioch (as well as numerous other places around the Bay). There is music, speakers, performances, and of course food. You can listen live on 94.1 KPFA (Vigilant as Always).

Today is a good day to support a black owned business. Watch a film that honors black life. Films like Hidden Figures, Just Mercy, Loving, 12 Years a Slave, Harriet, are films that every American ought to watch in my opinion. Read a book by a black author (I began Zora Neale Hurston’s You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays ed, Henry Louis Gates Jr & Genevieve West last night). Annette Gordon-Reid has a wonderful and small book titled simply On Juneteenth that is worth reading.

I am sure where you live there are events going on as well. Celebrate the freedom of all people. Honor their journey. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Part of Loving our Neighbor as ourselves is recognizing that the journey has been different than mine and is far from over. We have lots of work left to pursue for justice and reconciliation in the USA and in the church.

May God give us hearts that are soft, eyes that are open, and ears that hear.

For Shalom

Further Resources

In addition to Annette Gordon-Reid’s book, Edward T. Cotham has written a comprehensive history of the origin of Juneteenth, especially the military background in 1865 and 1866 in Texas. It is a great book.

Juneteenth: The Story Behind the Celebration (University of Texas Press, 2021).

One Response to “JUNETEENTH: A Memory”

  1. Michael Summers Says:

    Thank you, Bobby. A book that I just finished that you might relish is Children of the State: Stories of Survival and Hope in the Juvenile Justice System by Jeff Hobbs which examines three approaches to criminal justice for teenagers, in Wilmington, DE, in NJ/NY, and in San Francisco.

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