In Celebration of Juneteenth

ABCUSA > In the Spotlight > In Celebration of Juneteenth

In Celebration of Juneteenth

A message from American Baptist Churches USA General Secretary Dr. C. Jeff Woods

Juneteenth honors the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the United States. The name “Juneteenth” is a blend of two words: “June” and “nineteenth.” It is believed to be the oldest African-American holiday, with annual celebrations on June 19th in different parts of the country dating back to 1866.

In celebration of Juneteenth, our staff will not be working on Monday, June 20. I also lift up our current work around Anti-Racism. A critical part of the work of Anti-Racism involves learning about the history of enslavement in the U.S.

Last month, I participated in a meeting with the National Council of Churches in Montgomery, Alabama as we toured the Legacy Museum (From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration) and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. From a technical perspective, the sites were very well done. They are educational, interactive and quite graphic in their portrayal of history. From an emotional perspective, the sites are powerful, inspiring, and incredibly disturbing. I learned several facts about the history of slavery that continue to shape and deepen my understanding of this horrific and historic continuum of history. Some of these learnings include:

  • At one time, two-thirds of the land in Montgomery was dedicated to slave trafficking, including: auction houses, holding areas, transporting, etc.
  • Many slaves marched 1,000 miles to be sold in Montgomery.
  • Slaves also built the railroad that transported them to Montgomery; like digging their own grave.
  • At auctions slaves were beaten if they appeared sullen and were forced to exaggerate their qualities. Then when they could not perform those qualities, they were beaten by their new owner.
  • One-half of all slaves were separated from their families.
  • In 1730, one-half of New Yorkers owned slaves and Pennsylvania had a law that they could capture “idle” Black people and enslave them for one year.

I also learned more about surveys that were given to Black people that they had to pass in order to vote. Grandfather clauses were passed that exempted White people from taking these literacy tests by tieing their voting rights to their grandfathers before the civil war. The grandfather clause also applied to poll taxes, another part of the Jim Crow laws. Soon after the passage of the 15th Amendment, 500,000 Black men registered to vote, helping to elect 2,000 Black men to public office. By 1910, registered voters among African-Americans dropped to as low as 2% in many states.

I have included one of the literacy tests, below. See if you would be eligible to vote if answering these questions were a requirement for you:

To register to vote in this state, you must correctly answer the questions in this examination.

  1. How many jelly beans are in the jar in front of you?
  2. How many windows can be counted at the White House in Washington DC?
  3. What does a Writ of Certiorari, Writ of Error Coram Nobis, and Subpoena Duces Tecum mean?
  4. The power of granting patents, that is, of securing to inventors the exclusive right to their discoveries is given to Congress for the purpose of what?
  5. Draw a figure at the bottom of this sheet that is square in shape. Divide it in half by drawing a straight line from its northeast corner to its southwest corner, and then divide it once more by drawing a broken line from the middle of its western side to the middle of its eastern side.
  6. How many seeds are in a watermelon?
  7. Draw five circles that have one common interlocking part.
  8. How may the county seat be changed under the constitution of your state?
  9. What are the names of the persons who occupy the following offices in your county? (1) Clerk of the Superior Court, (2) Ordinary, and (3) Sheriff.
  10. In what year did Congress gain the right to prohibit the migration of persons to the states?

I encourage you to visit Montgomery or one of the many other educational opportunities regarding the history of enslavement.

Dr. C. Jeff Woods
General Secretary
American Baptist Churches USA