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Free at Last

Black History Museum celebrates day of freedom that came 2 and a half years late.

The slaves in Texas had been free for two and a half years, but they didn’t know it. Surrounded by Confederate soldiers and geographically isolated, news of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863 did not reach black people in Texas until two months after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Union General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston on June 19, 1865 and immediately proclaimed the slaves’ back-dated freedom.

The celebration that followed the announcement was reenacted every year in Texas, eventually becoming known as Juneteenth. After cycles of popularity and decline, the festivity has experienced a resurgence across the country, adopted beyond the borders of Texas (the only state where it is an official holiday) as a day to celebrate the freedom of all black Americans.

On June 17, Alexandria’s Black History Museum will be celebrating Juneteenth for the 13th year in a row. The event will be hosted by the Charles Houston Recreation Center on the 900 block of Wythe Street and the Black History Museum across from it. Performers like Stephen Samuel Soothing Caribbean Sounds, the Singing Angels gospel choir, the D.C. Blues Society Band and East Coast Connection will play music throughout the day. Children will have the chance to play games and make crafts. An oral history project will be housed in the museum’s library.

Organizers described the Juneteenth Celebration as an opportunity for black Americans to take ownership of a day that truly marks their independence, from slavery at least. Museum volunteer Randy Stevens helped organize the city’s first celebration. “We as black people celebrate the 4th of July, which did not actually free us,” Stevens explained. “The same people who penned the Declaration of Independence considered us at the time to be two-thirds of a person.”

But Stevens added the event is more than a party, or a protest. “It’s an educational project as well.” The festival will present a lecture on “Africa’s Gifts to the World,” an introductory workshop on the West African language Yoruba, a workshop on researching family genealogy and a lecture on the African origins of African-American foods.

PORTIA JAMES, chief of research and collections at the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum, will lecture on the origins of some traditional African-American foods. Many dishes, she said, “may seem African-American, but really [are] part of the unique blend of cultures that came about in this country.” She said she plans to explore how some of today’s dishes evolved from African predecessors, mentioning “possum baked with sweet potatoes” as one dish that was not fit enough to survive into the modern day. She said her favorite dish to discuss was rice and peas, because it can be found throughout the African diaspora.

She said she chose the topic of food partly because food “is always part of any celebration or any holiday, particularly Juneteenth.” Many Juneteenth celebrations have a “tradition of barbecue. In some parts there’s a tradition of drinking red [soda] pop … It’s pretty much the traditional kind of summer celebration foods: fried fish, potato salad, barbecue, fried chicken, that kind of thing.”

The Oral History Project, inspired by similar endeavors by the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Folkways Festival, will be a first for the museum, said museum director Louis Hicks. The doors of the museum library will be open to anyone who wants to come in and talk about his life. Members of the Company of Sisters, who have experience recording oral histories, will interview participants for 15 to 20 minutes, “giving people the comfort level to sit before a camera and talk about their life, which becomes history,” said Hicks.

The museum will welcome people of all ages to share their lives with the tape recorder. “History is always in the making,” Hicks said. “The records of a young child right now are just as important” as those of the elderly. Participants will be asked about their neighborhood, the games they played and the topics of conversation around the dinner table, among other subjects.

Hicks explained that black history museums often have a particular need for these oral histories, because in many cases official and material histories of black life in America never existed or weren’t deemed worthy of keeping. “Our major institutions either ignored our history or didn’t consider it important,” Hicks said.

HICKS said that despite its traditionally black focus, the museum’s Juneteenth celebration will be relevant to people of any color. “Sometimes people feel a little reticent thinking it’s an emancipation celebration for black people only,” Hicks said. “But it’s an educational program designed for all people [on] an integral part of our U.S. history.”

Traverse Gray, the director of the Charles Houston Recreation Center, stressed the celebratory aspects of the event. “It’s a fine day for the community to come out and mingle and socialize,” he said. “It’s a day of fun.”

Gray said the program was including more programs to increase youth involvement. He said the youth would have opportunities to dance and, “hopefully,” sing, “if they don’t get bashful.”

Stevens encouraged Alexandrians to come out to the festival. He said black people need to support their own cultural holidays. “We celebrate everybody’s holidays but our own.”

James tried to put Juneteenth in context. “People sometimes forget that Juneteenth is just one of the many, many types of emancipation celebrations that blacks staged all around the country in the immediate aftermath of the civil war,” she said. “It’s the one that outlasted all the others … and has come to represent everybody’s celebration of emancipation and of freedom.”