Smells Like 'Teenth Spirit

Illustration for article titled Smells Like 'Teenth Spirit

When I was a kid, my brother and I could look forward to waking up early, putting on a Juneteenth T-shirt and heading to my grandma's house. She lived in Hamilton Park, a black neighborhood in north Dallas, and every year on the Saturday closest to Juneteenth, churches, community clubs and local businesses paraded down streets named for Ralph Bunche, Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte and Ebony magazine.


We would stand on the sidewalk, eager and excited, passing out ice-cold cups of water to the parade participants, as they wiped sweat from their brow under the sweltering Texas sun. It was exciting. Barbecue, Big Red soda and watermelon on June 19 were staples at my house, and though it was sometimes a small celebration in the middle of the week, we celebrated nonetheless.

My mother had enacted a personal corporate holiday for June 19. Her boss always knew that "Elaine is off on June 19." She would hear from the bourgeois blacks that it was a "celebration of ignorance." On June 19, 1865, two months and 10 days after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ullyses S. Grant at Appomattox, when slaves were officially set free, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston with 2,000 federal troops with a message that all slaves were free.

Two months of ignorance? Who would have told the slaves they were free? The slave masters in the Confederate states? How could a slave be ignorant about a freedom they so earnestly longed for? In her eyes, this freedom rang louder than the words of those who couldn't understand her cause for celebration.

While she was growing up, there were several different perceptions of Juneteenth. In the early '60s, during the Civil Rights Movement and the move toward integration, Juneteenth symbolized a shame that blacks in Texas slaved longer than the rest of the South. The Black Power Movement in the late '60s breathed a new life into the celebration, as being black and proud was the formal moniker for the new generation. And as a teen, my mother immersed herself in that new identity.

Black, proud and free.

Black independence day, indeed.

For her it is not about the date of June 19, the barbecue or the parades. It is simply, a celebration of freedom.


She had a much different experience than I did as a Gen. Y-er. Growing up in the suburbs of Dallas, I was one of the few black girls in my neighborhood and in my school. Texas history books mentioned Juneteenth, and the school curriculum breezed through the day, but as far as a lasting impression of my knowledge of Texas history, all I remember is the Alamo.

I never really experienced overt racism. I had white, Asian, Latino and black friends. I was awash in the hunky-dory lifestyle of a suburban town where I saw myself as the friend that was black and not the black best friend. It often took history books and nighttime news for me to step back into reality and see a different perspective.


But I still knew the significance of Juneteenth. My mother and father made sure that my brother and I knew our history.

This image was lost some time after publication.
This image was lost some time after publication.

My brother, James, was always excited about Juneteenth festivities.

My mother shared with me a story, that happened just a few years before I was born. The saying was, "Come hell or high water, there will always be Juneteenth at Comanche Crossing." That was the Booker T. Washington State Park, which was located in Mexia, Texas, my late father's hometown, 50 miles east of Waco. And it was where one of the biggest Juneteenth celebrations took place every year.


In 1981, my mom and dad had driven down a mile-long road off the highway and across a bridge leading into Comanche Crossing. It was so packed that my parents barely made it across the bridge before they met bumper-to-bumper traffic, hundreds of cars in every direction. It was so overcrowded that people started leaving their cars to enjoy the festivities.

Three white officers had arrested Carl Baker, Steve Booker and Anthony Freeman for possession of marijuana. Because they could not get across the bridge due to all the abandoned cars, the officers put the men in a small boat, allegedly handcuffed. Their weight tipped the boat and all three boys drowned. My mom said people were in hysterics and yelling, "They drowned them boys!" The officers all survived and were later acquitted of negligent homicide before an all-white jury.


My mom and I had totally different experiences with race while growing up in Texas. What bonds us is the history behind our experiences. And it's this ambivalence that I think many African Americans feel in this country. It even applies to Juneteenth itself.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, it did so in a back-handed sort of way. Lincoln was pushing the Confederate states into a return-to-the-Union corner by taking away the Confederacy's main source of labor and subsistence.


Nevertheless, we were free. Free at last, free at last!

And that was cause for celebration. And that's what my mother did. In 1986, my mother was quoted in The Dallas Morning News while at a Juneteenth celebration:

Among [the attendees] was Elaine Evans who took a day off her job to celebrate. She sat outside the recreation center and bounced her 8-month-old daughter and talked about Juneteenth.


"It's very important just like we celebrate the Fourth of July. The oppression of a human is much more important than shooting off fireworks. My parents taught me, and my child will know. Erin will know," she said of the baby on her knee.

And now, I really do.

Erin Evans is chief copy editor and writer at The Root.