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Juneteenth 2019

Juneteenth Memorial Monument at George Washington Carver Museum in Austin, Texas.

Juneteenth is the oldest memorial observed across the country to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. The comes from the combination of June Nineteenth, when Major Granger arrived at Galveston, Texas, with news that the Civil War was over, and the quarter-million slaves in Texas were finally freed.

The celebration began in Texas, but spread throughout the country as the twentieth-century Great Migration saw southern blacks spread throughout the country. Today only four states do not have a holiday or official ceremony day to honor Juneteenth: Hawaii, Montana, and North and South Dakota.

Part of the celebrations is to remember and tell the stories of the ancestors. Today I took some time to read and listen to the words of former slaves. I strongly encourage you to do the same. The Library of Congress has two excellent collections to help.

Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories

This collection contains recordings of former slaves. Most took place in the 1930s and 40s, but the most recent ones were done in 1974, interviewing a former slave named Celia Black who was born in 1859. The recordings can be difficult to hear sometimes. The technology of the time did not age well. And the subjects were all elderly at the time of their interviews, which can complicate matter. But these voices record events that took place more than a century and a half ago.

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938

This collection contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery, collected during the 1930s. The interviews were transcribed, then compiled into seventeen volumes. Interviews were grouped by state and placed in alphabetical order by the interviewee’s name.

The transcribers wrote up the interviews phonetically, using the dialect the interviewers spoke in. The language is also reflected of the time and experiences of the former slaves being interviewed. You may find words and phrasing that are offensive today. Remember the historical context, and that these are the words the former slaves used. The “n” word, in particular, is used quite frequently.

These narratives are filled with details of every life.

“Slaves didn’t come to de house for dinner when dey was wukin’ a fur piece off in de fields. It was sent to ‘em and dat was wat kilt one of my brothers. Whilst is was hot, de cooks would set de bucket of dinner on his haid and tell him to run to de field wid it fore it got cold. He died wid brain fever, and de doctor said it was from totin’ all dem hot victuals on his haid. Poor Brudder John, he sho’ died out, and ever since den I been skeered of gittn’ too hot on top of de haid.” ~ Julia Larken, Atlanta, Georgia (vol. 4, part 3, p. 4.).

In addition to the narratives, there are 500 images of former slaves, such as this one of 93-year-old William Colbert. If you are interested in researching your ancestors were or may have been slaves, visit the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.

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