This Saturday, June 21, Jim Thomas and the Spirituals Choir will take part in the annual Juneteenth celebration sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard branch of the NAACP. The event begins at 1 p.m. at the First Baptist Church, corner of Spring and William Streets, Vineyard Haven. The choir’s presentation is scheduled to start at 2:30.
The celebration also includes an intergenerational panel discussion on “Speaking Truth to Power” and a potluck supper in the parish hall next door. Bring a dish to share or a $5 donation. (The food last year was scrumptious.)
Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. Legally the slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863. But it freed only the slaves in the rebellious states, and made exceptions for some in the slaveholding states that had remained in the Union. Its moral force was great, however, though it could only be implemented through military victory. The Civil War ended with the Confederacy’s surrender on April 9, 1865, but it wasn’t till June 19 that Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, arrived in Galveston, Texas, with the news that the war was over and all slaves were free.
Word reached the various towns and plantations on different days. Slaves weren’t always aware of the exact calendar date, but everyone knew it was the middle of June. Hence the end of slavery has been celebrated ever since as “Juneteenth.”
No new spirituals have appeared since the end of slavery. Once they were free, the former slaves no longer needed to communicate in secret. The last authentic spirituals celebrate emancipation: “Great Day,” “Free at Last,” and “Oh Freedom over Me.”
Next year, 2015, will mark the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth. For more about Juneteenth and its celebrations, check out this website.
Hope to see you on Saturday!
Jim Thomas (at left) and some of the choir at last year’s Juneteenth celebration