Saturday, June 16, 2018

Juneteenth Celebration: Our Freedom Day Story

My cousins, Armentha Reed Puryear and the late Isaac “Ike” Deberry of Senatobia, Mississippi, both listened to their grandfather Bill Reed talk about that day in 1865 when Lemuel Reid stood on this very porch they are standing on and announced to all who were enslaved on the Reid Place that they were free.

The Reid Place, the old home of Lemuel Reid, near Abbeville, South Carolina, as it stood in 2004.

JUNETEENTH is a special holiday that commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. On that day, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger read General Order #3:

“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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

The celebration of June 19th was coined “Juneteenth” that soon evolved into a national celebration of the emancipation from chattel slavery in the United States. The Emancipation Proclamation, with an effective date of January 1, 1863, did not immediately emancipate most enslaved African Americans in the South, especially in Texas.

I often wonder about the day my enslaved ancestors were told that they were free. How did they feel? What did they do? Did they cry a river of tears? This day was undoubtedly a dream come true. After Alice Marie Johnson was recently pardoned after serving over 20 years in prison for a first-time, nonviolent offense, she stated that she performed a “Pentecostal holy dance” upon hearing the news from Kim Kardashian. I imagine the same type of jubilation that my enslaved ancestors displayed when they heard, “You are now free.” What an emotional day that must have been! The only difference here is that my enslaved ancestors had not been too-long imprisoned for a crime they committed; they and their ancestors had been held in inhumane yet legal bondage against their will for over 200 years.

Fortunately, my cousin, the late Isaac “Ike” Deberry Sr. (1914-2009), recalled a special story that his maternal grandfather – my mother’s paternal grandfather, William “Bill” Reed (1846-1937) of Senatobia, Mississippi – had shared with the family about his “Freedom Day.” Cousin Ike had a very close relationship with Grandpa Bill and remembered many accounts he shared with him. Although Grandpa Bill was a reserved man, I’m told, he was not tight-lipped about his experiences during slavery in South Carolina. Cousin Ike voiced so many mouth-dropping stories to me, that this vast amount of valuable oral history served as the solid foundation of 150 Years Later: Broken Ties Mended.

I listened with excitement as Cousin Ike recalled Grandpa Bill’s “Freedom Day.” He shared, “Grandpa told me that on the day they got freed, Lem Reid came out on his porch and called all the slaves up to the house and said to them, ‘Y’all is as free as I am.’ He asked them to stay on the place to help him bring in the crop and he promised to pay them. Grandpa said that they stayed for a lil while and then they decided to follow this man to Mississippi to make a better living for themselves.”

In an earlier recollection, Cousin Ike had shared that an unknown man from Mississippi came to Abbeville, South Carolina. He saw Grandpa Bill and others taking a break from working in the field, approached them, and told them that “Mississippi was the land of milk and honey with fat pigs running around with apples in their mouths.” Cousin Ike humorously shared, “Hearing that Mississippi had fat pigs running around with apples in their mouths got them all excited.” Grandpa Bill, a younger sister Mary, and others packed up their wagons and moved to near Senatobia, Mississippi around Jan. 1866. (DNA is indicating that another sister, Louvenia, remained in Abbeville; more later.)

Grandpa Bill Reed married Sarah Partee-Edwards in 1871, and they had eleven children. He died on Nov. 30, 1937, at the old age of 91. During the week of his death, he had been out chopping wood. He lived to see 53 of his 57 grandchildren, as well as a number of great-grandchildren. Many of those grandchildren and great-grandchildren listened to his stories while sitting underneath his sycamore tree. His stories were not forgotten. On July 8, 2004, members of Reed Family visited Abbeville, South Carolina for the first time. We finally saw what Grandpa Bill had talked about for many years.

The descendants of Lemuel Reid placed this Welcome sign in their storefront to recognize our return back to Abbeville, South Carolina after 138 years.

Standing on the steps of the Abbeville County Courthouse, July 8, 2004

(All pictures are the property of Melvin Collier.)

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