Celebrating slavery's end
by John Hilton
From the June, 2019 issue
"People really need to know what Juneteenth is about," says Sharon Gillespie. "It's a celebration--the end of slavery." Gillespie, seventy-three, grew up in the old black neighborhood north of downtown, when Ann Arbor was still racially segregated. She returns each June to Wheeler Park--named for the city's first black mayor--to browse the nonprofit booths, listen to the music, and compete in the "cakewalk."
Though Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, the Confederate states ignored it. In Texas, the proclamation didn't take effect until a Union general announced its implementation on June 19, 1865. "Juneteenth" soon came to refer to the formal end of slavery in the U.S.
The following year, "freedmen" began to gather to mark the anniversary. Denied the use of public parks during the Jim Crow era, they created private ones to host the celebrations.
Juneteenth faded in the early twentieth century, but was revived during the mid-century civil rights movement. Norma McCuiston, widow of former Ann Arbor NAACP president Fred McCuiston, emails that Ann Arbor's celebration began when Rev. Herbert Lowe, then pastor of The Good Shepherd Church of Christ and later Amistad Nondenominational Church urged the Branch to recognize and celebrate Juneteenth in Ann Arbor. "Rev. Lowe, who was very knowledgeable about Black history felt that a community celebration around a joyous time for enslaved Africans in America would be an event in which all residents of the city could participate in and enjoy." Held on June 15 this year (see Events), it "features local talent, a children's area, a cakewalk (also a feature of the early Juneteenth celebrations), and of course food."
At last year's event, Gillespie was tickled to learn the history of cakewalks--dance contests with a cake as the prize. "I remember, as a kid, going to them, but I never knew the significance of it," she says. "After slavery, it was an opportunity to dress up and prance."
That's the goal, McCuiston writes: "to provide an avenue for the celebration of an American History event that is joyous in the lives of African Americans. Unfortunately, there are not very many of these."
The NAACP's twenty-fifth annual Juneteeth celebration is Saturday, June 15, at Wheeler Park (see Events).
[Originally published in June, 2019.]
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