by Luana M. Graves Sellars
Throughout the year, we use calendars to remind us of dates that are deemed important, and noteworthy. However, most of us don’t think about the decision-making process which takes place giving value to some dates, or moments in history on standard calendars, but not to others. Most of us are beginning to realize that what we call ‘history’ is a matter of perspective. Similarly, calendar construction is also a matter of perspective, therefore, certain dates that some value, are either ignored or unknown to others. One celebration that takes place in June memorializes one of those pivotal moments in American history that has not yet been fully embraced by the mainstream population, and year after year, it goes largely unacknowledged except in Black communities nationwide.
What holiday do you ask? No, it’s not another Hallmark created recognition meant to compel you to purchase a card. It’s a specific date in the month of June that marks an important day in American history. The date is June 19th, otherwise known as Juneteenth. Sadly, the average person doesn’t know or even recognize the importance of the date to U.S. history. I almost said in Black History, but it really is an important milestone in American history.
Even though slavery was abolished on January 1, 1863 by the Emancipation Proclamation, the news was not received by slaves in Texas until June 19th, 1865 which was a day that not only changed the lives of tens of thousands of slaves in the United States, it also marked the change of our country’s history. Recognized as the date that slavery officially ended in America, Juneteenth has been celebrated for more than 150 years.
Common knowledge of Juneteenth is greater in the Black community, because like most Black history information, it essentially lives in the Black oral tradition, and has been passed down from generation to generation. It is the verbal sharing of history through families that has ensured that the significance of Juneteenth is never lost, and that it maintains its proper place in American history. What is one of the most remarkable elements of Juneteenth, is that it landed squarely in the Reconstruction period because it marked an end to slavery and the beginning of freedom. Just like the fourth of July, represents American independence, Juneteenth celebrates freedom from slavery; independence and self-determination instead of human bondage.
Annually, the celebration of Juneteenth reminds us of the historic significance of the Lowcountry especially as it relates to the Reconstruction era, and given the increasing focus on cultural tourism, this historic period has been revitalized. All of this talk about Reconstruction has me thinking. So, what is Reconstruction really? By definition, the noun, reconstruction is: the action or process of reconstructing or being reconstructed; a thing that has been rebuilt after being damaged or destroyed.
In the American past, Reconstruction stood for rebuilding a South that had been physically destroyed, but on a psychological level, is also referred to reconstructing and healing the emotional and spiritual damage that resulted from a country at war with itself. Reconstruction was meant to be about new beginnings that focused on the future, not the disasters of the past. And yet, as with most history, Reconstruction was turbulent and has equal measures of progression and retrogression.
The Lowcountry’s historical significance during Reconstruction is non-controversial because its history is rich and indisputable, however, in the last few years, there is a resurgence of interest in this local history. Reconstruction has become the hot topic partly because it has drawn the attention of the U. S. Department of the Interior. On January 12, 2017, the federal government designated Penn Center’s Historic Darrah Hall, the Historic Brick Baptist Church on St. Helena Island, the Emancipation Oak tree at Camp Sexton and Beaufort’s Old Craven Street Fire Station as a Reconstruction Era National Monument. This recognition memorializes the critical role that Beaufort County played in the historic Reconstruction period.
It is expected that the National Monument locations will evolve into permanent National Park attractions, and bring more focus to all of the other historical gems in the area, like Mitchelville. Mitchelville, the first self-governed town for freedman in the United States sits in the heart of Beaufort County, and it is expected that in the years ahead, the story of Mitchelville will enrich the history of the Reconstruction era.
In many ways, we are living in a period of reconstruction because we are reconstructing the past, but we are also in a period of construction because we are using the past to build a better future, one that is inclusive. We’re moving toward a time when an important holiday like Juneteenth, will be embraced as a pivotal day in American history, and that all of our calendars will reflect that.
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