One week to Juneteenth

The history of African American Christian churches is long and complex. By and large the areas of Africa from which slaves were seized and taken into slavery were places where Christianity was not the predominant religion. Most of those taken into slavery encountered Christianity while they were enslaved. Part of the process of slavery was the imposition of European culture and religion upon the enslaved people. The stories of the Bible, however, inspired hope in those hearing them for the first time. Moses leading the children of Israel out of slavery became a very enticing story for those enslaved. Jesus reaching out to those who were marginalized and forgotten was inspirational. Because slave owners generally discouraged the education of slaves, many did not learn to read. In place of reading, a powerful oral tradition developed. Biblical stories were passed on by the telling of stories. Because the original stories of the Bible have such a long history of being transmitted orally, they lent themselves to this method of teaching and learning.

As the Christian faith took its unique path in the slave community, churches became the first legally owned property to be held by African Americans. Groups of slaves formed churches and associations that were able to own land and construct churches. As the popularity of Christianity among African American slaves grew, white slave owners became wary of the institution. Fears that churches could be used to organize insurrection rose. Some slave owners tried to suppress the practice of Christianity. But, as the Romans discovered long before, Christianity, when it takes hold, is impossible to suppress.

The church became the center of African American communities. Prayer and praise and other disciplines of faith took hold and powerful religious leaders emerged. When President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became official on January 1, 1863, churches were among the first institutions to celebrate. People gathered to thank God for liberation and to pray and offer their praise.

The news of the Emancipation Proclamation did not spread evenly across the United States. The tensions and disruption of the Civil War affected lines of communication. It is also possible that there were serious attempts to disrupt the distribution of the news. Cotton farmers wanted to deny the announcement to have slave labor for one more harvest. Warriors were still willing to fight and kill to preserve the status quo. The nation was not of one mind about emancipation. The bloody war was still fresh on people’s minds and some were willing to continue fighting even after the war’s official end. Whatever the reasons, it took two and a half years for the news of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach all of the South. With the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, the resistance was finally overcome. Military officials from the north began to travel throughout the south and carry the news of the emancipation. The arrival of Major General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas on June 19 is recognized as the final official notice that the war had ended and the enslaved were now free. It was two and a half years after the proclamation was first put into order.

African American churches greeted the news with festivals and dinners, worship and prayer. June 19 became known as Juneteenth and has been observed ever since as a day of liberation and freedom, but also as a day of faith and prayer. It is a day to gather in churches and give thanks to God.

Our Christian faith teaches us that God is always on the side of freedom. From the exodus from slavery in Egypt to the healing of lepers in the New Testament, rom the ten commandments to the liberating faith of Paul, the Bible speaks continually about God’s intervention in human history to act for freedom. For African American Christians, Juneteenth is one more recognition of the power of God’s presence in the lives of faithful people.

As African American families attempted to reunite following the emancipation, many drifted northward. South Texas slaves headed north and some found family in Oklahoma. For many complex reasons, the African American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma became a center of business and commerce. The Greenwood District in Tulsa was known as Black Wall Street and became a center of commerce and trade. Over Memorial Day weekend in 1921 a 19-year-old African American, Dick Rowland, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page a 17-year-old white woman. An angry crowd gathered at the courthouse where he was being held. African Americans came in an attempt to prevent a lynching and violence erupted. Within hours the Greenwood District was in flames with explosives, and incendiary devices being delivered in may different ways, some dropped from airplanes. 26 African Americans and 10 whites were confirmed killed, thought the actual number of African Americans killed was likely in the hundreds. More than 800 people were admitted to the hospital. 6.000 African Americans were interned in large facilities. 10,000 African Americans were left homeless and the property damage was in the millions of dollars. The story was largely covered up and not reported in history books until a century later when a bipartisan group in the state legislature formed a Commission to study the event. The final report of the commission recommended payments of reparations to survivors and their descendants, the establishment of an economic enterprise zone in the historic area and a memorial for the reburial of the remains of the victims.

Given the history, it is an extremely poor choice for the President of the United States to plan a rally for Tulsa on Juneteenth, 2020, as our nation is reeling from protests and the President has taken a racially charged stance. It should be a day for going to church and offering prayers, not a day for political rallies and the stirring of racial tensions. I’m well aware that the President does not read my journal and if he did he would not take my advice. However, I feel compelled to appeal to him anyway. Mr. President, please, just don’t do it. Don’t even go to Tulsa. And if you must, then go to church. Instead of standing outside for a photo opportunity, go inside and pray. This nation does not need more anger and violence.

This nation needs prayer. Juneteenth, 2020 is a day when we should all dedicate ourselves to prayer.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!