Every year, we celebrate our independence from Great Britain on the Fourth of July. But did you know that, in most states, there’s another independence day that some people also celebrate? It’s called Juneteenth, a 150-year-old African-American tradition that’s very much alive in Kalamazoo. But if Juneteenth has been around for 150 years, why haven’t more people heard of it?
Dorla Bonner, a black woman who was raised in Saginaw, has a theory. At 56 years old, she admits she knows very little about the annual observance that’s typically held on June 19.
“If your region did not embrace it, then that's not something you experience," Bonner says. "In the other cities I lived in, it was minor. It was never really enough to change your schedule to get there, especially if you didn't know the history of it."
That’s why Bonner says she is excited to be in this Sunday’s “Waiting on Freedom to Come,” a reader’s theater production about the history of Juneteenth being staged at the Dalton Center Recital Hall at Western Michigan University. The show is being billed as the centerpiece of Kalamazoo’s Juneteenth program, now in its 17th year. This is Bonner's first Juneteenth event.
Kalamazoo playwright Buddy Hannah, who was commissioned to write the play, says newly freed slaves in Texas created Juneteenth as an expression of their jubilation over the end of slavery. From Texas, it spread to the surrounding states of Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Then onto Alabama, Florida and California as African-Americans moved around the country.
"And it's spreading more and more," Hannah says. "And I think a lot of states are focusing on making people aware of it. They are beginning to realize that this is something that we should be proud of, this is something we should celebrate and honor. But you can’t honor something, or celebrate something, until you know what it is.”
For two members of the cast who spent most of their lives in Kalamazoo, it took visiting California to discover what Juneteenth was.
Kendall Campbell is one of them. He’s written some poems for the play. He says a man there said he was "shocked we didn't celebrate it more in the North."
According to Buddy Hannah’s “Waiting on Freedom to Come” play, 43 states and the District of Columbia had recognized Juneteenth as a ceremonial holiday or day of observance by 2014. In fact, in 1980, Texas was the first state to make Juneteenth a state holiday. Then, in Michigan in 2005, the sitting governor at the time signed legislation officially designating the third Saturday in June as Juneteenth National Freedom Day.
Although it is observed in most states, it might not be in every city.
And that takes us to the “Waiting on Freedom to Come” production.
Actress Angela Anderson says the play helps people learn about Juneteenth in an interesting way. She says that, for some people, a theatrical presentation can make historical facts more understandable than either reading about them or seeing them in a documentary.
"If someone they know is actually reciting lines and giving information that happened in the past in a play form, or some form of art, then people can start relating to it, can start feeling some of the highs and lows or the experiences that people from the past -- black people, enslaved people of our past -- actually had to deal with," she says.
Anderson plays Viola Simmons, the great-great-great-granddaughter of the fictitious Thomas Benjamin Tremble, an enslaved man in the 1860s in Galveston, Texas, the birthplace of Juneteenth. The play centers on three main characters. One lives in the present day, the granddaughter; another in the past – the enslaved grandfather; and a third is the narrator, who is the glue between the two.
The production also has original poems, African dance, and drumming.
On a recent Monday night, the three actors and the two poets were at the rehearsal held in the high-ceiled sanctuary of Allen Chapel AME Church in Kalamazoo.
The show’s playwright Buddy Hannah plays Thomas Benjamin Tremble, the enslaved man. In a few scenes, an enraged Tremble shows his frustration over being in bondage and says he'd rather risk death in escaping than staying on his plantation.
As it turns out, Hannah’s character won’t have to wait much longer to get his wish for freedom. We learn that, the next day, Tremble and all the slaves are freed.
The problem is, they find out late, very late, says Hannah.
“What happened in Texas is that they didn’t receive the message that the slaves had been freed until two years later," Hannah says. "It was brought to them by a Col. Gen. Gordon Granger, who came in and read General Order No. 3 they call it, which stated that the slaves are free. It was the first time they had heard it.”
That was June 19, 1865, the first Juneteenth.
Hannah says some people believe that President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves. But when it went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, the Confederate and Union states were battling each other in the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation only released slaves in the pro-slavery Confederate states, which meant slaves there would have had to run away in order to enforce the document.
It wasn’t until the Civil War had ended in the spring of 1865 -- 2 ½ years after the Emancipation Proclamation -- that the Texas slaves were at last told they were free. (All slaves were freed when the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was ratified later that year.)
And that’s what Juneteenth celebrates, the joy of finally being one’s own person.
Nowadays, commemorations also include recognizing historical milestones and the accomplishments of African-Americans in educational programs as well as rodeos, barbecues and cultural performances, depending on where you live.
Jeanne Baraka, who heads Kalamazoo-based educational and cultural organization Ujima Enterprises Incorporated, founded the long-running Juneteenth observance in the city. She asked Buddy Hannah to write the "Waiting on Freedom to Come" play about the origins of Juneteenth.
"What I began to find is people have lost their cultural center," Baraka says.
"And so, a celebration is one way, if we can institutionalize it and make it a regular occurrence, for people to reaffirm themselves. It's like a gathering to reaffirm themselves with Kwanzaa."
Kalamazoo's Juneteenth program will be at 4 p.m. Sunday, June 19 at the Dalton Center Recital Center at Western Michigan University. For details and tickets, click here. The event will also honor the heroism of Tiana Carruthers, the first of eight people that a gunman shot in February in the Kalamazoo area. A portion of the proceeds from Juneteenth will go to her recovery fund. She was shot four times.