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Juneteenth 2024: What would my great-great-grandfather think? (opinion)

Marian V. Wilson (Source: Provided)

(Editor’s note: This essay is part of a collection examining the intersection of history, memory and education in connection with Juneteenth.)

As I pause this week on Juneteenth in celebration and remembrance of the date recognized by some of us and misunderstood or denied by others, I wonder whether the sacrifices made all those years ago matter beyond a small town in Galveston, Texas, and perhaps to those native to my family’s home area, Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

In 2021, the U.S. declared June 19 a national holiday, Juneteenth, to celebrate and acknowledge that date in 1865 as the official end of slavery. Juneteenth evokes mixed emotions, opportunity, hope, anger, and resistance, and for some, it is an unnecessary date on the calendar.

I, however, cannot help but wonder what my great-great-grandfather, Daniel Hughes, would think. I wonder if he would be proud. Would he feel that his life’s work mattered or was it in vain? To be honest, I suspect he would have mixed emotions and wonder if it was too soon to celebrate.

Great-great-grandfather Daniel, a free man of mixed heritage, was a river raftsman who spent his entire adult life as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. By day, he hauled lumber on his barge down the Susquehanna River. Many times though on these trips north he also transported slaves and hid them from view through the southern states where slavery had not yet ended.

Daniel brought his hidden passengers to his homestead on a small winding back road in rural Pennsylvania, a road now referred to as Freedom Road. Now easily identifiable thanks to a state marker, Freedom Road was an important stop on the Underground Railroad.

Daniel and his family transported, fed, nursed, and cared for his passengers traveling through via his homestead until it was safe for him to assist them on to the next stop on this hidden railroad.

That was the small town of Trout Run. From Trout Run, passengers were safely assisted to freedom in Canada.

I suspect Daniel might have been wary of the recognition of Juneteenth as a national holiday. He might have expressed anger or sadness over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others.

He might also have questioned whether the large protests, marches, and activism were different from Rodney King in 1992, other than a camera’s view shared with the world. Daniel might even have questioned whether the road from Galveston to his home on Freedom Road and all the efforts made along the route by so many, before and after him, ever really mattered.

Now, when I ride across the bridge in Williamsport on Market Street towards home or visit that cemetery on Freedom Road, I cannot help but think about Daniel, my great-grandfather Robert, my grandmother Marion, my mom, my aunt, and their brothers.

I often wonder if the dreams they all had for their children, grandchildren, and us were possible. I also wonder, or perhaps worry, if Daniel would believe that the road from Galveston is still too far.