Juneteenth Luncheon explores what freedom means

Juneteenth Luncheon explores what freedom means
June 11
00:00 2015

The Juneteenth Luncheon commemorated the 150th anniversary of emancipation from slavery with accounts from those who experienced it, read by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill history professor Dr. Reginald Hildebrand.

The luncheon was held June 4 at Old Salem Museum and Gardens, which contains the historic St. Phillips Moravian Church, where emancipation was announced for local slaves in 1865. Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. It is held on or around June 19, when Union forces arrived in Galveston, Texas, with news of the end of slavery on June 19, 1865. Juneteenth is normally known as a large festive celebration, filled with food and entertainment as well as black history and culture. The luncheon is a different way to explore the end of slavery.

“It gives people a chance to sit down and hear the entire story,” said Cheryl Harry, Old Salem’s director of African-American programing and founder of Triad Cultural Arts, which organizes the local Juneteenth festival.

Harry said there’s always something new to say about emancipation. Last year, when “12 Years a Slave” won a Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Film (and went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture) and “Django Unchained” was released, the luncheon explored Hollywood’s depictions of slavery. This year, the focus was on what slaves did when they were free.

Dr. Corey D.B. Walker, the dean of the Winston-Salem State University’s College of Arts, Sciences, Business and Education, asked what freedom really meant as he introduced the speaker. He quoted a dissertation by Hildebrand: “Emancipation had only determined that blacks would no longer be slaves; it said nothing about what they would be.”

Hildebrand is an associate professor of African-American Studies and History at UNC-Chapel Hill. His research focuses on the Emancipation and the Reconstruction periods. He read firsthand accounts from various historical documents describing the announcement of emancipation in churches and the jubilant celebrations that followed.

“To most of the four million black folk emancipated by civil war, God was real,” he said
“He was real; they had meet him personally.” There was celebration like never before on that July 4th in Raleigh and deafening applause when the Declaration of Independence was read. It was the first true Independence Day the former slaves had experienced.

But newfound hope met sobering realities as Hildebrand described the sadness that former slaves had when Union forces left. Their presence was all that protected them from their former masters and the society that enslaved them. He read accounts of blacks being denied the ability to rent or buy land and others having to pay high rents.

He read from a black officer’s observations, that some Union soldiers near Tarboro where actually helping former masters keep their slaves, and in Raleigh white people where running blacks off their lots because they dared go to school.

“If the whites here had or could have their way, there would not be a free colored man in the state,” read Hildebrand.

Hildebrand described a convention in Raleigh in which 150 black delegates discussed the best way to define and secure freedom. They came up with a list of freedoms they hoped to secure: the right to testify in court, serve on a jury, to act as council in court and to vote.

“In other words, they insisted on being able to be involved in and respected by the criminal justice system, so that it would be operated openly and fairly,” he said. “And they also insisted on the right to vote. One hundred and fifty years later, we are still insisting on and defending those rights.”

He closed with a notice published in a national newspaper by former slave, Hagar Outlaw. She was looking for her children who had gone to separate masters. In her plea that they would some day find their mother again, she addressed her former master, Dr. Hugh Outlaw, asking him to let her children know she’s alive if he found them. The carefully worded sentence did not address him as “Master,” “Dr.” or even “Mr.,” which Hildebrand said sent a message to her former master.

“With those words, I can hear that lady saying with dignified defiance: ‘You have done your worst and I am still here. I am still strong, and my dignity and my humanity and my love for my children could not be destroyed,” he said.

He said that he didn’t know if Hagar Outlaw ever found her children.

After his talk, he said the backlash against freed slaves was common across the South and in the North, blacks faced tension with white workers, who were scared the freedmen would take their jobs. He said freed slaves had tremendous tenacity in building their new lives, but that it was crushed and oppressed by white people in that period using violence, discrimination and new laws. Former masters wanted to keep blacks as a cheap, controlled agricultural labor force, so they tried to prevent blacks from gaining education, becoming entrepreneurs and achieving political power.

Also during the luncheon, the Cedric S. Rodney Unity Award was given to Joycelyn Johnson and Rev. Stephen McCutchan for their work in the community. Johnson is a longtime community activist and former City Council member. McCutchan is a retired pastor who worked to bridge the racial divide and helped found the Presbyterian Inter-Racial Dialogue.

The local Juneteenth festival will be June 20 at the corner of Martin Luther King Drive and Fifth Street, around the Winston Mutual Building, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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Todd Luck

Todd Luck

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