Thursday, June 18, 2020

History of Juneteenth

“Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation - which had become official January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.

Later attempts to explain this two and a half year delay in the receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years. Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All of which, or none of these versions could be true. Certainly, for some, President Lincoln's authority over the rebellious states was in question. Whatever the reasons, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory.

One of General Granger’s first orders of business was to read to the people of Texas, General Order Number 3 which began most significantly with:

"The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer." 

The reactions to this profound news ranged from pure shock to immediate jubilation. While many lingered to learn of this new employer to employee relationship, many left before these offers were completely off the lips of their former 'masters' - attesting to the varying conditions on the plantations and the realization of freedom. Even with nowhere to go, many felt that leaving the plantation would be their first grasp of freedom. North was a logical destination and for many it represented true freedom, while the desire to reach family members in neighboring states drove some into Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Settling into these new areas as free men and women brought on new realities and the challenges of establishing a heretofore non-existent status for black people in America. Recounting the memories of that great day in June of 1865 and its festivities would serve as motivation as well as a release from the growing pressures encountered in their new territories. The celebration of June 19th was coined "Juneteenth" and grew with more participation from descendants. The Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.

A range of activities were provided to entertain the masses, many of which continue in tradition today. Rodeos, fishing, barbecuing and baseball are just a few of the typical Juneteenth activities you may witness today. Juneteenth almost always focused on education and self-improvement. Thus, often guest speakers are brought in and the elders are called upon to recount the events of the past. Prayer services were also a major part of these celebrations.

Certain foods became popular and subsequently synonymous with Juneteenth celebrations such as strawberry soda-pop. More traditional and just as popular was the barbecuing, through which Juneteenth participants could share in the spirit and aromas that their ancestors - the newly emancipated African Americans, would have experienced during their ceremonies. Hence, the barbecue pit is often established as the center of attention at Juneteenth celebrations...

On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator. The successful passage of this bill marked Juneteenth as the first emancipation celebration granted official state recognition. Edwards has since actively sought to spread the observance of Juneteenth all across America.”
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See: https://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Pox and the Covenant

"Tony Williams tells a rollicking good story about the contagious crisis experienced by Colonial America. The Pox and the Covenant is a superbly nuanced and well-written account of the interactions of human disease and events." -- Howard Markel, MD, PhD, George E. Wantz Distinguished Professor of the History of Medicine, the University of Michigan, author of When Germs Travel.

"For one hundred years, God had held to his promise, and the colonists had as well. When the first Puritans sailed into Massachusetts in the seventeenth century, weak from the ocean journey, they formed a covenant with each other and with God to establish a city on a hill-a commitment to live uncorrupted lives together or all suffer divine wrath for their collective sin. But now, a century later, the arrival of one doomed ship would put this covenant to its greatest test.

After several days of skirting the North American coast, on April 22, 1721, the HMS Seahorse arrived in Boston from the West Indies, carrying goods, cargo, and, unbeknownst to its crew, a deadly virus...

Boston, the largest city in the colonies, had a population of roughly eleven thousand souls. With such a large number of people, Boston rivaled the cities of mother England, save only for London. Boston was moreover one of the great hubs of the Atlantic trade network. It gathered goods from the farms of the New England hinterland and from smaller cities and ports along the American coast. These commodities were shipped all over the Atlantic while other goods were imported into the city and sent elsewhere. For a virus, a better place to contaminate could hardly be found....

After docking in Boston harbor, a skeleton crew was left on board the Seahorse while the rest of the crew and officers went ashore. At least one of the crew carried an infectious disease, one that would send a city into chaos, and put to its greatest test the covenant between the Puritans and their God. 

Soon, a smallpox epidemic had broken out in Boston, causing hundreds of deaths and panic across the city. The clergy, including the famed Cotton Mather, turned to their standard form of defense against disease: fasting and prayer. But a new theory was also being offered to the public by the scientific world: inoculation. The fierce debate over the right way to combat the tragedy would become a battle between faith and reason, one that would set the city aflame with rage and riot.

The Pox and the Covenant by Tony Williams is a story of well-known figures such as Cotton Mather, James Franklin, and a young Benjamin Franklin struggling to fight for their cause among death and debate-although not always for the side one would expect. In the end, the incredible results of the epidemic and battle would reshape the colonists' view of their destiny, setting for America a new course, a new covenant, and the first drumbeats of the Revolution."

See: https://www.amazon.com/Pox-Covenant-Franklin-Epidemic-Americas/dp/1402260938