The temperature climbed above 80 degrees as my kids and I followed the marked trail between historic homes in a downtown suburban area just minutes from our home. Their breaths became labored, their strides slowed in the early afternoon heat, and they were grateful for the breaks each time we stopped to listen to the history of a new building.
We learned how the basement of a classic 19th-century mansion that was a bed-and-breakfast had once been a nighttime refuge for hundreds of enslaved people fleeing to freedom. The hip coffee shop that everyone loves to visit still hides an underground tunnel that people enslaved to avoid being seen on the city streets. A small cemetery around the corner was the final resting place for enslaved people who died on the journey and some of the city’s most important citizens — many of whom were “conductors” on the Underground Railroad.
I asked my sons to imagine how the men, women and children who traveled here more than 150 years ago coped with the oppressive summer heat or the bitter cold seeping through their threadbare clothes as each step put them in grave danger and at the same time brought them closer. brought to freedom.
I had visited Underground Railroad sites before, but this tour on June 19, 2021 made the experience all the more poignant. That day marked the first time the United States recognized Juneteenth as a federal holiday, and the fact that our neighboring community in southwest Ohio lived up to its roots as an Underground Railroad city added to the importance of the holiday.
Shannon and Sons First Stop on June 19, 2021, Underground Railroad Tour
We celebrated the physical freedom of enslaved people just a year after they witnessed the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and witnessed the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police. It all served to exacerbate the generational trauma of racism and racial injustice, which can have devastating effects on the physical and mental health of black women. Many black mothers, in particular, have felt the heartbreaking pain of having their children stolen from them through slavery, lynching and police brutality.
As a history buff and lifelong student of black history, I was familiar with the history of Juneteenth. The name, an amalgamation of the words “June” and “19th,” marks June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to tell enslaved people in Texas that they were now free.
Learning about Junetienth years ago answered many of the lingering questions I had after studying the Civil War. I knew that most black Americans were still enslaved after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, but I wondered if all enslaved people were given their freedom immediately after the surrender of the Confederacy in April 1865 that ended the Civil War.
How did the enslaved people find out that they were finally free?
My youthful questions were right. All black Americans were not liberated in April 1865. The news didn’t reach everyone immediately, and there were many slaves in states further west who were perfectly content not to let the enslaved people know that the Civil War had ended.
That is why the arrival of Union Maj. Gene. Gordon Granger in Texas and his delivery of General Order No. 3 on June 19, 1865 were so pivotal to American history. The date that would later be celebrated as Juneteenth marked the true end of legalized American slavery, although many instances of slavery and sharecropping slave labor persisted well into the 20th century.
Galveston’s former slaves held Juneteenth parties the following year, and Juneteenth quickly grew into an important piece of Texas culture. In 1980 that state declared Juneteenth a public holiday. Other states would follow, and Juneteenth celebrations became a regular part of black community life in many areas.
As a black woman living in the Midwest for most of my life, I appreciated the importance of Juneteenth, but never felt a direct connection to the holiday. I would show my support through “likes” on Facebook photos of Texan friends hosting Juneteenth cookouts with family and friends or having kids march in Juneteenth parades. I thought it might be fun to throw a little party in Michigan or Ohio one day and join the festivities.
But the events of 2020 have changed everything. The death of George Floyd in May 2020 at the hands of the police forced the US and the world to address issues of racial inequality and the socioeconomic inequalities many black Americans faced long ago. That required a more critical look at the uglier parts of American history, such as slavery, and the timing was ideal for the activists who had worked for decades to gain more national recognition for Juneteenth.
The Juneteenth 2020 celebrations across the country drew national attention, fueled by the urgency of the moment. On June 17, 2021, the president signed a law that made Juneteenth National Independence Day an official federal holiday.
Fueled by the momentum of 2020, a number of communities in my area had already planned Juneteenth events for 2021. I had tentative plans to attend one, but when Juneteenth became a national holiday, that cemented my desire to participate . I felt in my heart that I had to celebrate.
I wasn’t the only one who felt a deeper connection to this important date. Promotions for Juneteenth festivals across the country talked about healing and recovery, and national organizations discussed the importance of cultural identity to one’s mental health and well-being.
“Juneteenth is central to black American mental health and well-being because it is defined by black humanity and liberation,” the American Counseling Association wrote in a blog post a few days before the holiday. “It’s part of the formation of black identity.”
The rain poured down on the morning of June 19, threatening to cancel the events. But by 11 o’clock the sun broke through the clouds and within an hour a beautiful summer day arrived. I told my boys that we would recognize our first tenth of June by honoring the ancestors whose bravery made this day possible. While our area had no direct connection to what was happening in Texas, slavery affected all black Americans and American history as a whole.
Historic sign indicating the significance of Springboro, Ohio, in the abolitionist movement
As we arrived in downtown Springboro, I thought about how many times I’d been to the area’s boutiques, coffee shops, and eateries without knowing the history of the buildings I entered. Of course, there were historical markers that mentioned the history of the area as an underground railway town, but that history became, however, when I heard the stories of how the roads we walked were once walked by fleeing slaves in the dark of night, and how those cute buildings were once safe houses where enslaved people faced the very real fear of returning to slavery or being killed.
I was proud to see the many people of all races who embraced our state’s history as a stop on the path to freedom, even though Ohio was not directly connected to the events of Juneteenth. And I am grateful that the first federal holiday on the 10th of June gave us all an opportunity to honor those who survived the horrors of slavery and fought for freedom, not only for themselves, but also for their children and future descendants.
As an affirmation of black humanity and dignity, Juneteenth is a time to heal and restore our communities and ourselves. That day I honored the sacrifices of so many black mothers, past and present, who fought to give their children a better life. Being present with my own sons as we recognized our ancestors brought a sense of emotional freedom, peace and healing.