At its core, the Juneteenth holiday is a compelling story. Somehow the Lone Star State was the lone survivor of a waning American slavocracy. Exhausted by a brutal Civil War, the newly established “union” could not corral Texas to end human enslavement for an additional two years following the “Emancipation Proclamation.” Eventually the story got to Galveston, Texas, by way of a public reading of General Order #3.
Juneteenth is a story about liberation; a story about endurance, struggle. It’s a story about Black existence in the face of unimaginable hate and violence deliberately institutionalized and designed with racial subjugation in mind. But Juneteenth is also a story about the survivors, the legacy of those who toiled through the Peculiar Institution without any tangible evidence that liberation was possible. It’s a story about all of us who are descended from those heroes too; a story about their legacy and the impact of that legacy on American democracy.
The story of Juneteenth, is the story of the Black experience in America; a story of survival and struggle. The story of the collective will of Black people to be free—by any means necessary. It is also—finally—a story about celebration and the perennial celebration of that original celebration in Galveston, Texas. The celebration matters even if we acknowledge the reality of our contemporary moment; a reality that reminds us of the thematic core of Juneteenth: We are still fighting for our freedom.
Some of our best storytellers aren’t household names
One of our most effective weapons in the fight is story, and as such, our storytellers are our heroes of the movement through each moment of the African-American experience. They are the dragon slayers, so to speak.
History is clear on this. Phyllis Wheatley, Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Nellie Rathbone Bright, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Alain LeRoy Locke, Toni Morrison—the list goes on and on. The storytellers slay the demons embedded in the legacy of racism in this nation. They have been here since 1619 and no liberation movement is complete without the power of their words.
Some of our best storytellers aren’t of the historically famous variety. Some of them are local heroes—committed to telling our stories of uplift, achievement and human endurance. These storytellers are slayers too, but their names may not be as recognizable in annals of history. And that’s ok too; we need all of the stories from all of the experiences. History is incomplete without them.
The Schuylkill River & Urban Waters Research Corps Archive features a trove of oral histories that navigate the terrain of environmental racism and the pollution of gun violence driven by an underground drug economy and unchecked poverty. The Archive goes beyond the data and stats that sometimes get in the way of the human elements living in these stories.
“Unless you can tell your story, unless you know your story, unless you celebrate that story, even when that story has trauma attached to it, then you will not achieve your joy,” says Dr. Thomas.
The Grays Ferry Oral Histories document the experiences of long-term residents of the neighborhood in the immediate aftermath of the PES refinery explosion in 2019. Reading and listening to the experiences of long-term Philadelphia residents is riveting. They are witnesses to the systemic blight and underdevelopment of our communities in ways that charts, graphs and stats simply can not capture.
Melissa Toby, a Black woman who has lived in Philadelphia for over 40 years, was interviewed by Maggie McNulty of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH) in 2019. In one telling exchange, Ms. Toby pushes back on how we sometimes see local neighborhoods under duress on multiple municipal fronts. “I’m kind of making the best out of a bad situation,” she says. “So, people may see bad now, but we lived in it. We played in it. We raised our families in it. So, where you may think, oh, that’s just a bad area. It’s not as bad as you think. Because there are families here, there are roots here, there are so many memories that we cherish . . .”
Tammy Reeves, another storyteller/respondent in the Grays Ferry Oral Histories project, turns the table in her narrative, too: In response to a prompt about her hopes for the future of South Philadelphia, she laments the gentrification happening all around her neighborhood. “What about the people moving into them homes?” she asks. “Have they been made aware of what all that was over there? Have they been aware? Have they been made aware that we have already died from the chemicals and all of that over there? And they keep on saying stuff over there is not hazardous. So, if it’s not hazardous, why do you need a group to come in with hazmat suits on?”
More local storytellers on the job
This month, in honor of Juneteenth (and the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel), a partnership between the Germantown Info Hub and G-Town Radio is creating space for storytellers via a series of Pop-Up Storytelling Booths situated throughout the neighborhood. The Germantown Voices Project is designed to collect the stories of neighborhood residents to develop an organic historical archive to reflect the rich history of the region. They are focused on collecting stories “about growing up or living in Germantown, how Covid-19 has affected your life, or your memories of Germantown.”
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Stories matter. Our stories matter.
Before the pandemic hit, Dr. Norma Thomas and her daughter Dr. Raina Leon researched and curated a mobile museum that collects the histories of African Americans in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Uniontown, aptly named in honor of this great American experiment in democracy, is colloquially known as Beesontown. It was founded on July 4th 1776 by Henry Beeson. It’s a small rural western Pennsylvania town located in the middle of Fayette County.
(For a better sense of Uniontown’s place in the critical core of Americana, fast food aficionados will also note that it is the birthplace of the McDonald’s Big Mac.)
The population of Uniontown is 18 percent African-American, according to 2010 census data. This is a significant enclave of Black demographics for a rural western Pennsylvania town. And its significance traces back to a history of the Underground Railroad and cadres of Black veterans who fought battles in the earliest of America’s efforts to build its empire (Spanish American, French and Indian, and Civil War). This storied history and the role of African Americans in it, has become the life work of Dr. Norma Thomas.
In conversation, Drs. Thomas and Leon are magnetic. Their energetic enthusiasm for what Dr. Leon refers to as “ancestral recovery work” is palpable in its purpose. They have stories to tell.
In one of the many that they share with me, Thomas and Leon journeyed to Saluda, South Carolina, in search of records related to one particular ancestor of theirs who is a lynchpin in their genealogy. “With genealogy research you’re always told to start with yourself,” Dr. Norma tells me.
Mom and daughter drove down a long dusty road into Saluda, South Carolina, in search of their own ancestor’s record of existence. They had done their research—collecting binders full of documentation that had led them to Saluda. But they were coming up empty. And now, of course, they were lost on a two-lane road somewhere in South Carolina. They couldn’t find what they were looking for.
Dr. Leon started to say something like a prayer to herself: “Ancestors we want to know you. Please allow us to know you.”
“We will take the lessons that our ancestors gave us,” Dr. Norma says “We will celebrate the day of Juneteenth where we know that’s not the end of the story. That is only the beginning of what we need to do. We celebrate that day as a continued beginning, to not let those who would take our joy and our stories away from us be able to do that.”
The wind gusts were strong on that day and the weeping trees of the region were imposing enough for them to slow their drive a bit. Dr. Thomas caught a glimpse of a “teeny” tiny sign on the side of the road for Lockhart Baptist Church. This wasn’t the site they were looking for, but the name rang a bell from the binders of research they had already collected. They made a u-turn in the two-lane road and circled back.
The church was closed, but they took the liberty of exploring the cemetery. In the graveyard of this church—founded in the early half of the 19th century, Drs. Thomas and Leon had found a treasure trove of their ancestral work. “We saw name after name after name of our ancestors,” Dr. Leon tells me. “And I’m like, oh I know that one. I remember that record. I remember that. And they’re all together. They’re all together.”
Dr. Thomas is a retired professor. She lived in Philadelphia for about 37 years, working at the University of Pennsylvania and at Widener University in the fields of gerontology and social work. Dr. Leon currently lives in Philadelphia but works at St. Mary’s College in California. These days, Dr. Thomas is relocating closer to Philadelphia so that she can spend more time with her children and grandchildren. Dr. Leon turns to her mom and affectionately calls her Bibi (Swahili for grandmother). Bibi’s heart and legacy still resides in her work in Uniontown.
This work has not gone unnoticed. On one, pre-pandemic tour—given as a part of the Uniontown Hospital’s “Wednesday Walks” series, Dr. Thomas led a small group of mostly white patrons on a living journey through Uniontown’s Black history. Speaking through a headset connected to a portable PA system, Dr. Thomas guided the group to the Lantz Funeral home—a historic Black funeral home in the heart of Uniontown. Aaron and Autumn Lantz are the current proprietors, but the Lantz Funeral home has been serving Black families in Uniontown since 1928.
When Mr. Lantz heard Dr. Thomas’ voice, he came out, still dressed in scrubs to tune in to the tour. Dr. Thomas was giving the audience insights into the history of the nearby East End Playground also known as “The Playground of Champions” for its own history in producing standout Basketball players. More and more people joined the walking tour that day as it progressed through Uniontown marking sites, parks, cemeteries and churches essential to the town’s history.
Choose your literary ancestors; but more importantly, choose to write about the slayers —at least as much as, if not more than you write about the dragons. Write about people over pathology.
There’s something special about the multi-generational nature of Dr. Thomas’ and Dr. Leon’s ancestral recovery work. When I asked Dr. Leon to introduce herself for this record, she beamed. “I am a walking legacy. I am very mindful of my connection with my ancestors, my living ancestor here too, right?,” she said. “So, my mom is an AKA [Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.—a historically Black sorority]; I’m an AKA. My mom is a professor; I’m a full professor. My mom does ancestral recovery and archival work; I’m starting to do that work.”
And their work continues. Dr. Thomas takes a sage approach to it all. “Unless you can tell your story, unless you know your story, unless you celebrate that story, even when that story has trauma attached to it, then you will not achieve your joy,” she says.
I ask both ancestral recovery workers about the significance of Juneteenth in the critical context of their work. They begin to riff on the theme and it is not lost on me the way they speak: their hand gestures, the smiles, the furrowed brows when they tell stories about their work. Dr. Leon is a living, breathing simulacrum of her mother. Once you note/notice this, the powerful reality of it is inescapable.
Choose your literary ancestors
Generational storytellers. Generational dragon slayers. Jerald Walker’s 2006 short story, Dragon Slayers—from his collection How To Make A Slave— has inspired the framing of this piece. That story is about much more than the mythology it summons, or the complexity of its academic settings.
For Walker, writing about the dragon slayers is an act of resistance. It signals a set of literary choices. Choose your literary ancestors; but more importantly, choose to write about the slayers —at least as much as, if not more than you write about the dragons. Write about people over pathology. Celebrate the survivors, acknowledge the trauma—wrestle with it, but our stories can not only be about trauma. The dragon slayers have worked too hard and too long for us not to celebrate what is awesome about the lived experience of African Americans. For Thomas and Leon, this is what Juneteenth represents.
Dr. Norma makes this plain. “We will take the lessons that our ancestors gave us,” she says “We will understand those lessons and put them forth. And we will celebrate the day of Juneteenth where we know that’s not the end of the story. That is only the beginning of what we need to do. We celebrate that day as a continued beginning, to not let those who would take our joy and our stories away from us be able to do that.”
GREAT PHILLY STORYTELLERS YOU SHOULD KNOW
Header image shows Germantown Voices Senior Producer Jeanette Woods sitting with Germantown resident Gretchen Thompson at The People’s Lot. | Photo by Diana Lu, Germantown Info Hub