Paula Woods on Juneteenth, Compton and Black History


General Ordinance No. 3, prepared on June 19, 1865, by Major-General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, heralded the end of legalized slavery in the state. This was about two years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Appomattox. In “June 17Historian Annette Gordon-Reed describes the event as a source of great pride statewide and considers the decision to make it a national holiday a tribute to Texas exceptionalism in all respects. (Although as a result of the social justice protests last year, it has also become an opportunity for marketing.)

As well as providing a context for an event that has become a touchstone for the Black celebration, “On Juneteenth” is also a powerful examination of the history of a Black Texan through the prism of personal memories. Tellingly, Gordon-Reed admits to having felt a slight annoyance “when I first heard that other people outside of Texas called for the vacation.”

I have to admit that I shared his initial perplexity, but for other reasons. Coming from a family of transplanted Southerners, I grew up with no personal connection to this memorable day. My parents immigrated to Los Angeles from Arkansas and Missouri, and their circle of friends came from places like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Puerto Rico, so the June 15th celebrations were not part of our summer rituals. We did not celebrate June 19th at the Compton school, where I grew up and where the school year ended a few days before the 19th. I suspect that the deepest truth is that at that time. Back then, it was rare to find a large celebration of the dark in my integrated high school in Compton; the southern suburbs of LA was in the final throes of white flight that started in the 1950s when my parents moved from Watts.

While there must have been recognition of Black History Week – established in 1926 – in my AME church, the calendars did not commemorate specific dates in black history. (Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday was not celebrated until after his assassination in 1968; the first Black History Month commemoration was held in Kent State about two years later.) In our home. , the story was shaped by a sense of struggle and triumph over a dark wave of racial atrocities. One of the fundamental stories my father told me involved being suddenly uprooted, at age 16, from his home in Batesville, Ark., In 1925. A white child called my father the N word, which resulted in a brawl that the white child did not win. A local Klansman, one of many who had their horses shoeed or car repaired at my grandfather’s blacksmith / auto repair business, courtesy of coming that afternoon for the inform that a lynching party was coming for her only child.

Although I have since learned that lynchings were not as prevalent in Arkansas as in other states, my grandfather, born in 1887, reportedly heard the horror stories of homicidal whites invading black communities in East St. Louis, in Tulsa and, much closer to home, in Elaine, Ark. It was there that hundreds of blacks, it was estimated, were murdered in a 1919 massacre intended to suffocate a nascent sharecroppers union. (Despite the horrors and economic devastation of Tulsa, some argue that Elaine remains among the deadliest black massacre in the history of the United States.)

Black inmates are rounded up by the National Guard in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 1, 1921. By the end of the day, many thriving black businesses in an area of ​​35 blocks had been burned down and hundreds killed in what is known as the Tulsa Race Massacre.

(Historical Society of Tulsa / AP)

My grandfather, I was told, was grateful for the warning as it gave him a few precious hours to rush home, pack the family Model T with as many of their belongings as he did. could contain it and escape with his wife and son. My grandfather was 38 years old, young by today’s standards, but he had already exceeded the life expectancy of a black man of his generation by five years. His desire for a better and longer life for my father, Isaac, prompted him to move to Los Angeles, where he started a business similar to Watts that lasted for about 50 years.

So, no, Juneteenth was not my most formative commemoration in black history. He doesn’t even come second. This place belongs to August 11, 1965, the day after my father’s birthday, when a traffic stop of 21-year-old Marquette Frye escalated into police violence, triggering a conflagration that killed 34 people and destroyed some 40 million people. dollars in goods ($ 334 million in today’s dollars), mostly in black and brown communities. (Woods’ Auto Parts, at 108th Street and Compton Avenue, was spared.) I remember driving my dad to check his things a few days after the violence started and being caught on a side street between the approaching armored cars of the National Guard and residents of the community. , who had used a car to block the other end of the street, guns and baseball bats close at hand.

1940s photograph of the Woods Auto Parts Building

Woods’ Auto Parts circa 1940s.

(Isaac M. Woods)

Reframing, finally, of these so-called riots into rebellions is the central premise of a fascinating new book by Elizabeth Hinton, “America on fire. “A timeline at the end of Hinton’s book, listing hundreds of rebellions in Detroit, Harlem, Long Beach, and even Stockton, is a damning chronicle of more than five decades of black outrage, in large part sparked by police violence. Finding my watts in its pages brings me back to the painful history of LA in a way that is both frustrating and empowering – a feeling I imagine the survivors and residents of Greenwood share as the horrors of the Tulsa Massacre are remembered. in documentaries and a recent presidential visit.

My first real memory of Juneteenth was from a black studies class at USC. The injustice of blacks ignored their own freedom for years struck me as consistent with the “divide and conquer” strategy that I had seen unfold throughout history – for example in encouraging domestic slaves to feel superior to those in the fields, or separating the goals of civil rights integrationists from those of the radically transformative Black Panthers.

My personal story, or yours, should not obscure our collective duty to commemorate June 17 of this year or to understand it as an important step in the end of institutional slavery. It became one of more than 1,500 entries on Black history and achievements that Felix Liddell and I hosted in a “African American Book of Days», Published almost 30 years ago. At the time, I was pressured to collect small points of light in the dark history of racism – and fill in the gaps in those “mainstream” period books that overlooked the black presence in history, literature. and the arts.

It was our great joy to include images of African American fine art, to commemorate exhibits such as LACMA’s iconic 1976 exhibit, “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” to juxtapose this long-awaited announcement. long in Galveston with the moment, two years later, when PBS Pinchback – briefly the first black governor in the United States – urged black people to use their right to vote. Or to find out about one of the first authors of black detective novels, Rudolph Fisher, who ultimately led me to edit an anthology of mysteries, write my own mysteries, and become a book reviewer. But the specific dates of black exceptionalism should not make us forget the darkest commemorations or the fact that we, as a nation, still have a lot of work to do to secure our collective freedom and preserve our democracy.

For me, celebrating Juneteenth is recognizing a small step in reclaiming our complete history. As Congress passes a bill to make it a federal holiday, my only hope is that the Juneteenth deeper message of emancipation, its connection to the continued quest for black freedom and equity, is not lost in the inevitable onslaught “June 10 Celebration and Sale” events that will surely await us.

What am I going to do this June? With drink ideas from the recent LA Times Food Bowl discussing black foods for the holidays (traditional red sparkling water isn’t my thing), I plan to dig into Hinton’s book, re-read the classic cooking story by Jessica B. Harris “High on the porkAnd savor the fascinating Stephen Satterfield Netflix series it inspired. I’m going to open Carol Anderson’s new book, “The Second,” on the surprising racial history of the Second Amendment. And if the non-fiction gets too heavy, I can revisit Jewell Parker Rhodes’ deeply moving novel about the Tulsa Massacre, “Magic City”, newly reprinted with an author’s note on the centenary of the tragedy.

People walk along Martin Luther King Boulevard in Los Angeles on June 19, 2020

Samantha Husbands of Los Angeles parades with the “Black Lives Liberating the Black Community” trailer / march along Martin Luther King Boulevard, ending at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza on June 19, 2020.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

June 15, along with all other important dates – happy or not, public or private – can help us reframe and refresh our country’s selective memory on American history. These are all important reminders that, as Emma Lazarus said, “Until we are all free, none of us will be free.”

Woods is a literary critic, editor and author of several anthologies and detective novels.


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