It was 2007, and Douglas and I moved to Illinois for me to accept a position at a university in the small college town of Macomb, population of about 8,000 people when the students weren’t in residence. When the students came to town, the numbers swelled to about 20000 people.
We bought a house in a predominantly white neighborhood, as there was only one other black family on the streets around us, and ironically, the wife never spoke to me. As we walked on the walking trail near our house, people rightly assumed that one of us was a new professor at the university, but, without fail, whites would welcome Douglas as the new professor. He would then inform them that I was the new professor. It was always an awkward moment.
One day, we were at the local library, and as we left the buiding and started to walk across the park adjacent to the library, I heard music. It was Caribbean music, so I turned in the direction of the music. Douglas was next to me, and when I looked yonder, I saw a sight that brought me joy! I screamed and started running. He called out, “What’s wrong?” I responded with so much happiness, and without breaking my stride, “Black people!”
It was a holiday celebration, with food, music, games, and a lot of black people. Nearly everywhere we went to shop or eat, I was the only black person. I was starting to think that no other blacks, but the non-speaking woman across the street, actually lived in this small town.
Most of the people at the celebration were blacks raised in the city and professors who taught at the university. For the first time in weeks, I ate soul food, including potato salad, collard greens, real fried chicken, and, be still my heart, sweet potato pies.
When I asked them what they were celebrating, they told me it was a Juneteenth celebration. I was embarrassed that I didn’t know what Juneteenth was. Over 50 years old, and I had never leard of Juneteenth!
One of the organizers, a black professor at the university, explained to me that it was a celebration of the day that slaves in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation that had freed them. It was signed in 1863, but the slaves in Texas didn’t learn that they had been freed for two more years.
Of course, the people danced with happiness and packed what little they had, free at last! Those newly freed people then went in search of loved ones who had been sold away from them because of the avarice of slavery. Children left to search for parents, and parents went in search of children. Husbands and wives sought to find spouses.
I cherished those moments of learning my own history, and I made new friends. Interestingly, as Douglas and I walked up, everyone knew that I was the new professor and they welcomed me.
Through the efforts of black insurgents, Juneteenth became a national holiday in Texas in 1980, and people are trying to make it a national holiday. Virginia governor, Ralph Northam, is proposing making June 19, a holiday in Virginia. Ironically, more people know about Juneteenth this year because President Trump planned a rally in Tulsa on the same day. Now, everyone is asking the same question I asked that wonderful day nearly 13 years ago! Teach all of history, not just the parts that are comfortable.