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Juneteenth & How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

Juneteenth was yesterday, but it's never too late to celebrate freedom.

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was effective January 1, 1863. But it wasn't until June 19, 1865, that the news reached Galveston Island, Texas, and, according to one version of events, the order announcing the end of slavery read outside the town hall. Since then, Juneteenth has been celebrated every year in Galveston. The tradition spread across the country, becoming an official Texas state holiday in 1980, and a national holiday in 2021. In the book How the Word is Passed (2021, Little, Brown and Company), Clint Smith writes about his visits to Galveston Island and many other places related to slavery in the United States, showing how parts of history have too often been ignored. I'll mention some of them briefly below.

Monticello Plantation Charlottesville, Virginia.

I found this book entirely relevant to my own experience of tourist visits to former plantation homes or mansions, which often oddly pass in silence their history of slavery, focusing instead on the "big house" and its owners and decor. One plantation home I visited in North Carolina had a slave cabin on the premises, but it was given no importance, no plaque or description; it just seemed to be sitting there as a side note at best, not even part of the tour. The focus was on the big house, where you could see the nice lifestyle of the slaveowners, with an occasional look at the economics behind it: I remember an accounting ledger where the dollar value of a slave was entered. This was probably 25 years ago, and while things have started to change, it's important to be vigilant, according to Smith.

I haven't been to Monticello, in spite of many trips to nearby DC, but having learned from Smith's book that there is now a slavery tour instead of just "the big house" tour, I plan to visit. The Whitney Plantation, Wallace, Louisiana. This museum gives voice to the stories of enslaved people who lived there, which is vital because there is only one remaining photo of them, and no recorded stories. Most slaves couldn't record their experience, so much of their history is lost. Some stories were told to abolitionists, and collected as oral history projects at Black universities. In the late 1930s, staff from The Federal Writers' Project, created during the New Deal, collected more than 2,300 firsthand accounts of formerly enslaved people, and photographs. These slave narratives have been edited to seventeen volumes, housed in the Library of Congress. Visitors to Whitney Plantation, aware of its focus on enslaved people, aren't expecting just to tour the "big house". Still, Clint Smith asked Yvonne, a supervisor at the museum, if there is any difference in how whites and blacks experience the museum. She said the most common question asked by Whites is: "I know slavery was bad...but were there any good slave owners?", whereas Black visitors tend to think the tour doesn't go far enough in saying how bad and violent slavery was. Yvonne says she understands that point of view, but that the tour is only 90 minutes and the priority is to get visitors to see the former slaves as people because, "If you can't see them for being people, you can't see me as a person." (p. 70 - 72) National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama. Founded by lawyer and civil rights activist Bryan Stevenson in 2018, this museum not only documents the history of lynching in the South, but for the first time names those murdered in each county across each state. Angola Prison, Angola, Louisiana Angola Prison is directly connected to the history of slavery and forced labor. Smith went on a prison tour; I was surprised to learn you could do so, and that the Angola Prison gift shop does a good business selling "branded" merchandise including mugs and key chains to people on the tours. Blandford Cemetery, Petersburg, Virginia. Blandford Cemetery is one of largest mass graves of Confederate servicemen in the South. In a separate spot nearby is People's Memorial Cemetery, an historic African-American burial ground, which until recently had not received needed maintenance in spite of its historical significance.

African Burial Ground National Monument, New York City The discovery in 1991 of the African Burial Ground in New York City "challenged the popular belief that there was no slavery in colonial New York." (p 230) The earliest and largest African burial ground in the country, it closed at the end of the 18th century and was paved over little by little as the city grew. During a construction project, remains of free and enslaved people of African descent were found. Historians estimate that between the mid 1690s to 1795 when this cemetery was used, the remains of ten to twenty thousand free and enslaved Black people were buried here. Quotable quote by the author's tour guide: "Question everything...everything you read...hear. Fact-check, fact-check, fact-check." Seneca Village New York City, was a thriving Black community from the present day 82nd Street and Central Park West, to 7th avenue. But as the city grew and the land, became valuable the Black landowners were violently pushed out of the village. While we're in New York City, here's what I learned from Smith's book about the Statue of Liberty. In an early model, the statue held a pair of broken shackles in her left hand, instead of the tablet - an idea of abolitionist Edouard de Laboulaye. But instead, the final version has small pieces of broken chains at her feet, partially hidden beneath her robe, visible only from a plane.

Gorée Island, Senegal There were several places where captured Africans passed into the slave ships in Africa, but Gorée Island in Senegal has come to symbolize them all.

Smith also visits the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, but I've run out of time and it will soon be June 21st, so you'll need to read the book for more information.

Go Further!

Take a minute to listen to Clint Smith himself. He'll give you a better idea of the content, relevance, and emotions which I haven't expressed, of this impressive book. If the video is too long, find a shorter one on YouTube.


Gandhi statue removed in Ghana (Smith mentions in his book)

Another video:

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