Juneteenth Celebrations Honor African American History in Arkansas and the U.S.

Jun 17, 2016

Mosaic Templars Cultural Center
Credit Arkansas Times

On Saturday, June 18th the corner of Broadway and 9th streets in downtown Little Rock will be transformed into a block party in honor of Juneteenth, the nation’s oldest holiday commemorating the end of slavery. This year, the festivities hosted by the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock will be expanded, in large part because of the Kinsey Collection of African American art and history that is currently on display.

Brian Rodgers, Public Information Officer at the Cultural Center, says the collection and Juneteenth go hand in hand. Rodgers says both educate the public about the long-overlooked history of African Americans.

“The Kinsey [Collection’s] mission is to dispel the myth of absence,” Rodgers says, “and so the Kinsey Collection sets out to show that Africans, or people of African descent, have been here from the very earliest days... and so the Kinsey Collection fits into the idea of Juneteenth by celebrating the accomplishments of African Americans.”

Celebrations of Juneteenth date back to June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas, freeing slaves throughout the state. 151 years later, the holiday has been adopted in states across the country, on and around the 19th.

In Arkansas, Juneteenth is not an official state holiday, but it is observed annually by order of a gubernatorial proclamation.

But the actual history of abolition in the United States happened in stages. Two years before they landed in Galveston, Union forces began their occupation of Arkansas. In 1863, slavery was made illegal in the state. The granting of freedom in the old Confederacy was drawn out. University of Arkansas at Little Rock history professor Carl Moneyhon says there are more differences than similarities among personal emancipation narratives.

“It’s very difficult to generalize... to say that there is an African American response to freedom, or an African American response to anything in the immediate post-war period,” Dr. Moneyhon says. He points out, however, that it quickly became clear that the transition from slavery to freedom would not be an easy one, highlighting a “significant realization that just being free... doesn’t mean you’re actually free until you can literally take care of yourself.”

Though this struggle was felt in homes across the South, many memories of it could have been lost to history if it weren’t for efforts in the mid-20th Century. One of the largest pushes to record slave narratives, Dr. Moneyhon says, was that of the Federal Writers’ Project.

“Beginning really in the 1930s, historians became much more interested in looking for the history of everyday folks, and one of the major projects that allows us insight into African American history was the Federal Writers’ Project that collected recordings of memoirs of people who had been slaves,” says Moneyhon.

Arkansas writers worked particularly hard to document the stories of ex-slaves, accumulating nearly 700 interviews. Many of these mention specific places still present around the state today. Julia White, whose oral history was put on paper in 1938, remembered growing up in “a house on Third and Cumberland, the southwest corner.”

White remembered the day Union soldiers came to Little Rock, saying, “My father was at that time... a porter at McAlmont’s drug store. He was a slave at that time but he worked there. I’ll never forget [the day this place was taken]. It was on September 10th. We were going across Third Street, and there was a Union woman told mamma to bring us over there, because soldiers were about to attack the town and they were going to have a battle.”

Though all of the Arkansas stories are transcribed, in other states, reporters gained access to recording equipment. This allowed them to capture the voices of people like Laura Smalley of Hempstead, Texas, who spoke with interviewer John Henry Faulk in 1941 about her memories of that first Juneteenth.

Laura Smalley: You know, and old master didn't tell you know, they was free.

John Henry Faulk: He didn't tell you that?

Laura Smalley: Uh-uh. No he didn't tell. They worked there, I think now they say they worked them, six months after that. Six months. And turn them loose on the nineteenth of June. That's why, you know, we celebrate that day. Colored folks—celebrates that day.

These and other nearly-forgotten stories will be celebrated on this Juneteenth, looking to the future, but also remembering the rich history of African Americans. Brian Rodgers says, in the midst of the games, food, and music, there is a more serious side to the festivities, as the Mosaic Templars’ Cultural Center works “[to show that Africans and people of African descent have been a part of the fabric of the state and of the country since its earliest days.”