It was on Sept. 22, 1862, that a proclamation of freedom was issued by Abraham Lincoln, the president of the United States, proclaiming Jan. 1, 1863, the day that all persons held as slaves in designated areas of the South would be free.
However, the enslaved people in Texas didn’t get the word until June 19, 1865. That state’s government simply chose not to be in compliance with federal law and opted instead to conceal the executive mandate by coalescing with the elite plantation owners to facilitate the harvesting of their cotton. It was not until Gen. Gordon Granger arrived on June 19, 1865, and read the proclamation publicly to the still enslaved Texans that they were informed of their emancipation.
Thus began the celebration now known as Juneteenth. It is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. The celebration not only commemorates African American freedom throughout America, it also emphasizes education and achievement internationally. It is a day, a week and in some areas a month marked with celebrations, guest speakers, picnics and family gatherings. It is a time for reflection and rejoicing. It is a time for assessment, self-improvement and for planning the future.
It was not until Feb. 7, 2013, that the proclamation of freedom was officially ratified in Mississippi. The celebratory House bill reads as follows: “February 7th is declared to be ‘Mississippi Day of Freedom and Abolishment of Slavery’ in recognition, observation, and commemoration of Mississippi’s ratification of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. This day shall be a day to celebrate Mississippi’s freedom from slavery, and shall not be recognized as a legal holiday.”
Evidence of the delayed act and the lack of acceptance of freedom of African Americans as a “legal holiday” was on full display before the public at a recent meeting of the Itta Bena Board of Aldermen.
On April 16, organizers of the international celebration for Juneteenth presented a proposal to the board for support of the annual Juneteenth celebration in Itta Bena. The request was for the aldermen’s attendance and financial aid in the rental of two porta-potties. In the previous four years that the celebration was held in Itta Bena, the request was supported by the previous administration. Though there were relatively small crowds, never were there any reports of violence nor mischief at any of the previous celebrations.
This year the dynamics for the annual celebration were very different. The response that ensued in the aftermath of the organizers’ request triggered a discussion that went way beyond disrespectful. It was embarrassing. Just imagine an all African American board, with one exception that being the mayor, who is of European descent, engaging in a free-for-all shouting match with supporters who had come in support of Juneteenth. The angst filling the chambers was generated by board members, who responded with hate, dissension, disregard, discrediting accusations of dishonesty, disfavor and overall ignorance of the significance of Juneteenth.
With the exception of one male board member and the mayor, all others acted in outrage at the proposal to bring Juneteenth to their “little town in the woods” for the fifth year.
The notion that city officials (in Mississippi) would be so uninformed about Juneteenth, and also be so resistant to learning anything about their own history of struggle for freedom and the progress made thus far, is simply astonishing.
Whatever the cause for the Board of Aldermen’s denial, on display for the world to see was an unfiltered demonstration of self-hatred witnessed by all in Itta Bena’s City Hall. Just another day in the life of people who live in the “little town in the woods.”