The traditional Juneteenth celebration, commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, is kicking off this weekend in a small California town with serious roots in black history.
You’d think that the day that slavery formally came to an end in the United States would be a day of celebration for black Americans — and traditionally, it is. But it’s not the day that “mainstream” America might think it is. And it has nothing to do with the Emancipation Proclamation.
It falls every June 19, marking the day in 1865 when the Union Army took control of the last bastion of Confederate slavery, in Galveston, TX.
Ever since, the day has been known among black folks in this country as “Juneteenth,” and it is celebrated to the present day, across the United States and even beyond.
Since June 19 falls on a weekday this year — Tuesday, to be exact — many locales will be hosting Juneteenth celebrations this weekend, June 9-10. Check your local schedules.
Galveston may be the ideal place to mark Juneteenth. The city always puts on a series of events for the occasion, and with 32 miles of beaches on an island in the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston doesn’t need historical reasons to throw a party.
Of course, not everyone can get down to Galveston, but Juneteenth is celebrated almost anywhere you can find black Americans. One of those places is in California’s Central Valley.
ARMY CHAPLAIN, ORIGINAL “GANGSTA”
When Lt.Col. Allen Allensworth established it back in 1908, it was the only town in California founded, financed and governed by black Americans.
Born into slavery, Allensworth was the original black “gangsta.” When he wasn’t being punished for trying to escape, he was being punished for trying to learn how to read and write.
In the eyes of the slaveowners, that latter “crime” made him extremely dangerous — and if you look at it from their point of view, they were absolutely right.
During the Civil War, he finally made good his escape and joined the Union Army, eventually becoming a chaplain.
The decades that followed the end of the war may have brought emancipation for the slaves, but they also brought legalized discrimination, harassment, lynching, right into the 20th century.
With little hope that things would be better anytime soon in the old Dirty South, Allensworth turned his eyes west. He wanted to create a town where black families could own their own homes, their own land, run their own farms and control their own destinies, beyond the reach of Jim Crow.
No oppression. No artificial barriers. No excuses. No fear. Their motto:
“Never abandon the high ground of right for the low lands and swamps of expediency. No man was ever lost in a straight road.”
The spot he chose wasn’t exactly a lush, bucolic, picture postcard setting. It was hot, dry, dusty and table-flat — just as it is today. But the land was cheap and water was readily available.
SUCCESS THAT DRIED UP
And for the first few years, it worked, beautifully.
It not only was a successful farming community but a railroad stop, where cattle ranchers and farmers from surrounding areas could send their products to market. Allensworth had visions of seeing a college built there, eventually turning the town into “the Tuskegee of the West.”
The dream didn’t last, however. When the water table dropped as big farms farther up the valley siphoned off its water supply, farming in the town became imposible. Allensworth’s original inhabitants eventually pulled out.
But the memory of that pioneering effort and Lt. Col. Allensworth’s vision, as is a portion of the town itself, is preserved at the Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.
And while landlocked Allensworth has no beaches with which to match Galveston, Juneteenth will be celebrated there, too. There will be food and drink, a guided tour of its nine historic buildings, and some terrific speakers.
One of those speakers is a friend of mine named Shay Olivarria. Her motto — “the world is bigger than your block” — was one of the original inspirations for this blog, and still is.
With or without the Juneteenth celebration, Allensworth is a piece of black American history worth remembering, because its founder’s vision still has currency today.
Allensworth can be reached from Los Angeles or San Francisco by car. From Los Angeles, take Interstate 5 and state Highway 99 north to Delano, then head west on Graces Highway to the Central Valley Highway, aka state Highway 43. Turn north again to Allensworth.
From Northern California, take I-5 south to the Paso Robles Highway, aka state Highway 46. Head east to the Central Valley Highway, and there turn north to Allensworth.
DID YOU KNOW?
Although Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of black Americans from bondage, slavery, in a narrow sense, is still technically legal in the United States.
It’s spelled out in Section 1 of the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — the same amendment that your history teachers told you granted freedom to the slaves:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”