It Took Awhile
On September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but it was not enacted until 1863, the same year he issued a Presidential Proclamation that established the State of West Virginia. For Lincoln the major issue of the Civil War was preserving the Union. Ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who escaped the bondage of slavery to achieve status that granted him access to the President, constantly agitated Lincoln by insisting “Mr. President, this war is not about preserving the union, it’s about freeing the slaves”.
This alone serves to illustrate the role of slavery in the Sesquicentennial narrative. But there is another dimension of the story that connects the birthday of the State on June 20th with the celebration of Juneteenth on June 19th.
The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued January 1, 1863; but took two years for the news to reach slaves in Texas. Union General Gordon Granger pronounced freedom of enslaved blacks in Galveston on June 19, 1865. On February 3, 1865, West Virginia‘s first Governor, Arthur I. Boreman, signed an act which gave immediate emancipation to all slaves. West Virginia became the last slave state to enter the union and the first state to exit the Confederacy. It took a while before news of emancipation arrived in Texas just as it took awhile for slaves to become freed Mountaineers in the state of West Virginia.
The State Sesquicentennial agenda seemed to have overlooked these connections. Such an oversight though maybe not intentional still represents the marginal visibility of African Americans in the state’s population which tends to expand in proportion to the decline of the African American presence in the population of West Virginia – currently about 3.5%. Even if unintentional, this oversight in programming the State’s Sesquicentennial seemed a consequence in need of correction.
The Tuesday Morning Group (TMG) group, a collaboration of leaders from community based organizations in Charleston, is addressing this omission with a four day Juneteenth Celebration of the Black Presence in West Virginia. The observance of Juneteenth inspires resilience and pride among African Americans and has come to be recognized as a symbolic milestone in the American quest to form a more perfect union.
Identifying connections between events in 1865 and the state’s 150th birthday provokes inquiry on what kept hope alive for slaves in West Virginia and Texas when freedom was at hand but not in hand. Apparently, an enduring spirituality empowered their patience and persistence to keep “eyes on the prize” as emancipation was on the way.
In a moving speech given at this year’ celebration of the Martin Luther King holiday, Rabbi Victor Urecki told the story of Israel’s “feeling of freedom” on the night before their exit from slavery in Egypt. With loins girded, sandals worn and a staff in their hands, they waited for what had already arrived because “freedom begins not with the physical reality of freedom, but when people realize they can be free”.
The enduring message of the Juneteenth Celebration of the Black Presence in West Virginia in conjunction with the Sesquicentennial celebration transcends race, color and class. The audacity to hope is embedded in our nature and nourishes neurons in the biology of believers. Slaves in West Virginia and in Texas may have awakened to this awareness while waiting for an external act to confirm an internal reality. Hope is not a plan but it is a good thing, particularly in bondage situations where we discover the freedom we seek is already here.
Ron English, TMG Event Coordinator