The 150th anniversary of the Civil War is being marked by countless grand battle re-enactments, but it’s one of the war’s quieter moments that Charlottean Walter Nelson is thinking about in these final months of the national observance.
That moment when slaves such as his great-grandparents realized they were free.
“It must have been exhilarating to know that you were no longer a captive,” Nelson says. “But I imagine it was also frightening: to no longer have a home on the plantation, to no longer have a job picking cotton. They were dependent on the slave master for survival, and suddenly they had to start from scratch.”
An informal holiday already exists to celebrate the moment – called Juneteenth – observed on or around June 19 each year with community festivals such as the one set Thursday through Sunday in Charlotte. Most of the events will be at Independence Park.
National recognition has eluded Juneteenth for more than a century, but its supporters believe the 150th anniversary of the Civil War may be the turning point for the day.
A Senate bill to make Juneteenth a Day of National Observance has 30 co-sponsors, and backers say more than 43 states, including North Carolina, have named it a formal holiday or day of observance.
Meanwhile, experts say hundreds of Juneteenth celebrations such as Charlotte’s have popped up across the nation in the past decade, partly because of increased awareness and partly because of the nation’s improving economy.
Businessman Pape Ndiaye says he started Charlotte’s Juneteenth celebration back in 1997, but he believes the national attention to the Civil War’s legacy will increase attendance this year.
He estimates 20,000 people will participate, 10 times the number who showed up for his first Charlotte Juneteenth celebration. Back then, Ndiaye said, most Charlotteans had little clue what Juneteenth meant or that June 19 marks a historical moment for ending slavery. Festivals had been held in the past, but ended for reasons unknown, he said.
It aligns not with the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation but with the 1865 arrival of Union troops in Galveston, Texas, where they informed the last of the nation’s enslaved people, 250,000 in all, that the war had ended two months earlier and they were free. (Texas made Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980.)
“I believe it’s a part of American history, but when I first moved to Charlotte in 1997, not many people knew anything about Juneteenth,” says Ndiaye, a native of Senegal, Africa, who owns the House of Africa gallery in Plaza Midwood.
“I felt I had a responsibility to teach what it means. My grandmother once told me that every traveler needs a direction, and to find that direction you need to look to culture and heritage. Only they can help you move forward.”
Defining their freedom
Local historians don’t know much about how the slaves in the Charlotte area reacted to news of their freedom.
A 1984 story in The Charlotte Observer featured one former slave’s reaction, as recalled by her granddaughter Virtrelle Frazier:
“Grandmother said the morning her Missy told her she was free and couldn’t be whipped no more, she was scared to leave, not knowing what freedom meant or where to go, but that finally she simply walked down a road with a man from a neighboring plantation who heard each household would be given $100 and a mule.
“They found a Marstah who gave them a mule but said they’d have to be owed the $100. They stayed and got married by jumping backward over a broomstick. That was all. That was the way blacks got married.”
Author and historian Janette Thomas Greenwood wrote a book called “Bittersweet Legacy” on Charlotte women of the era, both black and white, and she says her research uncovered little on how slaves immediately responded to being free.
However, it appears the story told by Frazier isn’t far off the mark. For many slaves, walking away from plantations was the first step in defining their freedom, said Greenwood, a professor of history at Clark University in Worchester, Mass.
And many quickly married, a right long denied them as slaves, she said.
“There was a massive movement of former slaves from the countryside to places like Charlotte,” Greenwood said. “They were often moving with distinct goals in mind, goals like finding family members who had been sold to other masters. ... There are records of people walking hundreds of miles to locate family members.”
‘A strong people’
There is evidence that Charlotte’s African-American population was celebrating an independence day as far back as 1892, though it was held in January to coincide with the Emancipation Proclamation.
Walter Nelson, 65, has been a sponsor of Ndiaye’s Juneteenth celebration since 1997, when it began essentially as a sidewalk event on Thomas Street in Plaza Midwood.
To Nelson, Juneteenth is about acknowledging what his great-grandparents, Daniel and Mary Haigler, accomplished after walking away from their plantations.
He can’t help but marvel that they survived through those weeks and months immediately after the war ended, a period when even the well-to-do were struggling.
“They had to be a strong people, when you think of how many times they could have been lost,” Nelson said. “The fact that we are still around today means that we are standing on some strong, sturdy, faithful shoulders.”
He’s not convinced that the 150th anniversary of the war will afford Juneteenth the kind of acceptance sought by backers such as the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, based in Mississippi.
Foundation Chairman Ronald Myers said the recognition campaign is not about getting a paid holiday for federal employees, he says, but rather a day of observance such as Flag Day or Pearl Habor Day.
Still, Myers admits the subject of slavery remains touchy in America, even as the country commemorates a war fought to end it.
“Americans have a hard time dealing with the dark legacy of slavery. We just don’t want to talk about it, but celebrating Juneteenth gives this country a great opportunity to deal with that legacy constructively,” Myers said.
“We all share a common bond of freedom. We may not have all gotten it the same way. For some, it’s the Fourth of July. For others, it’s June 19. Let’s don’t run from it. Let’s embrace it and celebrate together.”