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Juneteenth reflections: Gerald Wilson

Gerald Wilson (Source: Provided)

Celebrating Juneteenth always brings up the same questions about the origin of the now celebrated national holiday. The holiday’s origins are not even widely understood by African Americans but that understanding is increasing.

Historians attribute the celebration to the freed enslaved in Texas learning of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19, 1865, two years after its implementation by Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863.

Juneteenth 2023: Local reflections

One United Lancaster asked several Black community leaders and advocates to share their thoughts on Juneteenth. Click the links to read each author’s essay:

Traditionally, the most celebrated time of the year has been Black History Month, which occurs every February. As a festive sun-loving person I was always disappointed by this selection, which was picked to honor the birth of Frederick Douglass.

Personally, I always thought that Memorial Day should be the most celebrated holiday for African Americans, and all of America. As a family, on Memorial Day we always visited the garden shop and headed to all of the cemeteries throughout Lancaster County where my family members were buried.

This included the Lincoln Cemetery (colored only) in Mount Joy, Steven Greenland (colored) in Lancaster, and Mellinger’s Mennonite, East Lampeter Township. We used to call the holiday Decoration Day.

I remember meeting family friends and neighbors on that day decorating the graves in the cemeteries. This all culminated with a cookout on the usually warm holiday, the traditional beginning of the summer.

According to historians, Africans who were newly freed saw Decoration Day as a significant holiday celebrating the end of the Civil War and, more importantly, freedom for themselves, family members and other Africans in their vicinity.

The appeal of this holiday seems to have faded with time. I barely see others in the older cemeteries. While the attention to fallen soldiers is the focus of today’s Memorial Day, it’s been long speculated that the freed enslaved were responsible for Decoration Day’s enduring recognition.

While Juneteenth falls in a much kinder month than Black History Month, let us not forget the horrendous institution of slavery that lasted for two additional years for some. When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation it only freed the enslaved in the rebellious states that seceded from the Union, which included Texas. For many, it’s hard to believe that there were people who didn’t get word of their freedom.

The cruelty of slavery not only had a menacing physical component to it, it forbade teaching the African to read. The criminals holding these people in bondage were keen to not give up their free labor force.

I’m constantly asked about slavery here in Lancaster and am no longer alarmed by the shock on faces when I tell them there were enslaved persons here in Lancaster. They were being held against their will by some of Lancaster’s most notable citizens. The part of the story that perplexes me is the fact that there were enslaved and free Africans sharing the same sidewalks and streets.

We lost a great storyteller in Lancaster named Mrs. Maude W. Ball (1890-1995). Aunt Maude, as she was affectionately known, passed away at the age of 105. A member of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lancaster, she told the story that when she was a child, the congregation all stood when descendants of the formerly enslaved walked into church, to give homage to these individuals.

Aunt Maude also insisted that Bethel Church was never to be abbreviated to A.M.E. and to always use the word African in its description.

My father’s family was from Mount Joy. The cemetery there, known as the Lincoln Cemetery, named after Lincoln’s death, was previously known as the African Cemetery and is documented as such on wills and other legal documents.

It seems that our ancestors were always proud of their African heritage and used the term often. As a teenager in the 1960s, I always thought that the Black Power movement contributed to a great awakening of African Americans to their African roots. I have found several writings suggesting that this was passed down through the generations.

Earlier in the article I mentioned the word “Africans” when I described the freed people. I purposely identified them as such, because they were not recognized as Americans in this time period.

This brings us to the Great Commoner, Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868), who called Lancaster his home while serving in the House of Representatives.

The Honorable Mr. Stevens is the gentleman responsible for 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery, and the 14th. Amendment, which granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States.

I always thought of the 14th Amendment as the most important, because it states that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of the law. This amendment also guaranteed equal protection of the law to all persons. You can see how these amendments affected the lives of the former enslaved.

Stevens was revered by Lancaster’s African American community, along with others who traveled from afar to visit his grave. The African American churches in Lancaster made a regular pilgrimage to his final resting place in the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery located at Mulberry and Chestnuts streets in downtown Lancaster.

In the past this was celebrated with a strawberry festival, also commemorating Decoration Day. We will soon be able to see the legacy of Mr. Stevens and his business partner Lydia Hamilton Smith, in the upcoming Thaddeus Stevens & Lydia Hamilton Smith Center for History & Democracy which will open in late 2024 or early 2025 at South Queen and Vine Streets in downtown Lancaster.

Enjoy your Juneteenth holiday! Over the weekend, I went to the Upper Bay Juneteenth Celebration in Darlington, Maryland. My sixth great-grandfather, Cupid Paca, and his sons left land there for an African school called the Hosanna Schoolhouse and an African church, the Hosanna African Methodist Episcopal Church at Berkley Crossroads.

A celebration has been held there remembering Juneteenth and its meaning for a number of years. There are food, games, pony rides and lectures revolving around the African culture in this former slave state that exists just 30 miles to our south. I participate in telling the story of my family’s roots in the community.