Juneteenth Reflections & Resources

June 19, 2020:

Juneteenth is today. I think of it as “Oh, by the way, you’re free” day. I don’t mean to diminish what the day meant when it came to enslaved people in Texas on June 19, 1865, two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. The confederate Capitol in Richmond had fallen, Abraham Lincoln was dead, the 13th Amendment was well on its way to passage but slave-owning whites in Texas ignored the fact that people they kept in slavery were entitled to freedom. Many of them fled to Texas with their “property” because it was beyond the reach of the union army as the Civil War raged and losses mounted for the south. The fall of New Orleans ignited what Henry Louis Gates called “a re-enactment of the Middle Passage”, this time on land and estimates are that 150,000 slaves went from Louisiana, Mississippi, and even further east—to Texas. “It looked like everybody in the world was going to Texas,” one enslaved man said, reports historian Leon Litwack in Been in the Storm Too Long: The Aftermath of Slavery.

Harriet Willis was almost certainly forced to move to Texas, Houston, by her slave owner as a part of this landed Middle Passage. Jack Yates, who loved her, followed. He was born into slavery in 1828. They had 11 children. (Well, she had them!) Jack became Rev. Yates, pastor of the Antioch Baptist Church in Houston. He and three others raised money, about $800, to purchase land in 1872 that became Emancipation Park. Its sole original purpose was to celebrate Juneteenth. It was the first park in Houston and the state of Texas. Jack Yates High School was named after the former slave, Baptist preacher, college founder, devoted husband, father of 12 (the 12th born of a second marriage after Harriet’s death), Juneteenth barbecue pitmaster—I might be making that part up, the Rev. John Henry “Jack” Yates. But stay with me…

Blacks from Houston spread Juneteenth to Los Angeles, Oakland, and Seattle. Forty-six states now recognize Juneteenth as a holiday. The four who don’t are Hawaii, North and South Dakota, and Montana. I grew up every summer attending a “Houstonian Picnic” in Griffith Park, around Juneteenth—a celebration of family and friends. My Mom went to Jack Yates. So did sisters Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad, the journalist Roland Martin, rapper, Big Moe, Dexter Manley, Super Bowl Champion football player with the Washington Redskins (they should change their name). And George Floyd. George Floyd went to Jack Yates High School. My cousin Mickey McGill graduated with “Big Floyd” from Yates where George was a tight end on the football team. He lived in Cuney Homes, a government project in Houston’s Third Ward, where my mother and several of her siblings lived with their parents. Our world has collapsed. There are no degrees of separation. We are all connected. Always have been.

We are a few weeks beyond the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre. Trump chose, then under pressure moved his campaign rally from Juneteenth to the day after—still in Tulsa, still amid a resurgence of COVID-19 cases. November 3rd can’t come soon enough. The work of emancipation, of freedom, is not done. We celebrate the distance we’ve come, and we go on, with faith, and hope, and love. In honor of Juneteenth, I have given all our staff a day off today so they, and all of Riverside, may hold this day’s significance and meaning close.

Grace and peace,
Rev. Michael Livingston

More Reflections from Rev. Livingston

Riverside’s Mission & Social Justice ministry recently launched Anti-Racism Task Force is pleased to regularly share updates and resources — print, websites, video, podcasts, conferences, workshops, activism opportunities — to inspire critical self-reflection and self-evaluation.  It is hoped reading common resources will open discussions and raise consciousness in The Riverside Church community to name and address undoing systemic racism.

Download Anti-Racism Resources for June 2020 (PDF)