Free (For Real)
Seaside reclaims Juneteenth, an overlooked celebration of slavery’s actual end.
Thursday, June 9, 2011
This Saturday, Star Social Club President Sharolyn Haulcy-Robinson is throwing a barbecue at Laguna Grande Park in Seaside. It’s an early commemoration of an obscure holiday known as Juneteenth which lands, this year, on Father’s Day, June 19. The simple delights of a barbecue are slated: music by a DJ; ribs, chicken, corn bread, greens, potato salad; games, fellowship and sunshine. Proceeds from the sale of food will go to scholarships for local high school kids.
“It’s just a barbecue,” is how Haulcy-Robinson puts it. But its breezy, fun trappings are loaded with significance – in fact, with the weight of American history.
January 1, 1863 was a significant date for a young America. Embroiled in the midst of the Civil War, which began 150 years ago this year, President Abraham Lincoln on Sept. 22, 1862 issued his Emancipation Proclamation – it took effect on the first day of 1863.
It was a powerhouse of a political maneuver. With a signature, according to Jim Schmick of the Civil War and More Bookshop in Mechanicsburg, Penn., Lincoln reiterated to the seceding states that he was still their executive leader. He sabotaged the Confederate states’ hold over their slaves, and claimed and legislated the growing moral stance against slavery (although it didn’t apply in the same way to Union states that still enjoyed slaves).
But even after the executive decree took effect, Southern states beholden to slavery were stubborn to give it up. It took coercion, political pressure, even threat of military force.
Texas, notably, disobeyed until after the Civil War was concluded. (Theories circulate that slave owners there kept their slaves, who were forbidden literacy, ignorant of the change.) It took the enforcement of a federal army led by Major General Gordon Granger, who read to crowds of Texans a sort of memo from President Lincoln:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves… ”
That was on June 19, 1865; For two and a half years, slaves in Texas remained slaves, though they were actually, lawfully, rightfully, free.
Black communities today still celebrate Juneteenth on June 19 in remembrance, guided by the principle put eloquently by poet Emma Lazarus: “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”
Haulcy-Robinson writes in an email: “We [African-Americans] have embraced Juneteenth [as] America’s second Independence Day.”
“I’ve been to Juneteenth all my life,” she says. “Oakland, San Jose, my husband’s hometown of [Waco] Texas. A lot of African-Americans don’t know about it; it’s not taught in history books. You have to be culturally raised in it.”
Stanford historian and Seaside History Project director Dr. Carol McKibben adds an analytical context.
“There are so many [city-sponsored] celebrations in Seaside either based on race, ethnicity or cultural memory,” she says. “At one time, [the city] celebrated the Vietnamese Tet Festival. It indicates the extent the community is bound to one another. As demographics shift, these celebrations are a window into what these communities continue to cherish.”
Former Seaside mayor and city councilmember Don Jordan remembers multiple Juneteenth celebrations in Seaside in the early ’90s.
“They were along the lines of a Martin Luther King celebration but smaller, like a picnic,” he says. “Growing up in Louisiana, I hadn’t heard about it. But they were well attended here.”
But he concedes Dr. McKibben’s point about “demographic shifts.”
“It’s not celebrated the same since the Fort Ord closure,” he says. When Fort Ord went away, it took many of the African-American active military, retired and civilian population with it. Or, Jordan chuckles, they moved back to the South to “retire happily ever after.”
For that reason, Haulcy-Robinson, who has lived in Salinas for 13 years, has had a hard time getting the barbecue realized to her satisfaction, although her fellow members of the women’s auxiliary of Monterey’s Masonic Lodge have donated food, which her husband will cook on Saturday. But reinforcements are on the way. Longtime civic and civil rights activist Ruthie Watts, who is connected to a still-strong Seaside network of black civic leaders and will host a scholarship fundraising breakfast this Saturday morning, has expressed interest in reaching out to Haulcy-Robinson.
Texas found some redemption from its stubborn embrace of racism when, in 1980, one of its African-American legislators, Rep. Al Edwards, passed a bill that recognized Juneteenth as an official state holiday. Texas was the first state of nearly 40 to do so. California, hosts celebrations in many cities across the state. Now, again, Seaside is among them.
THE PRE-JUNETEENTH BARBECUE takes place 11am-4pm Saturday, June 11, at Laguna Grande Park, 1249 Canyon Del Rey Blvd., Seaside. Free admission; $10-$12/plate of food. 794-9593, www.juneteenth.com.
THE COALITION OF SCHOLARSHIP ORGANIZATIONS 13th annual scholarship breakfast awards 35 recipients with 66 scholarships 9am Saturday, June 11, at Embassy Suites in Seaside. Call Ruthie Watts for $40 tickets 394-3547.