Juneteenth

The year is 1923. It is the middle of June. You are a kid in a seersucker suit, on your way to a picnic. The weather is hot. Sweltering, actually. Texas can be like a steam bath sometimes.

Today is a holiday. At least that’s what everyone is saying. But it’s a day you’ve never heard of.

“What’s Juneteeth, Daddy?” you ask.

“Ssshhh,” says your father, the quiet Scottish minister, who is always telling you to shush. If you’ve been shushed once, you’ve been shushed a million times. He usually follows this up with, “Ssshhh, just listen, David.”

Just listen? You’ve been just-listening for your whole life, and it never seems to get people to quit shushing you.

This morning, before your family left the house, your mother dressed you up and fixed your blonde hair to your head with industrial pump lubricant. These trousers cost your parents money they didn’t have. Your father has lost three church jobs in one year because he keeps getting fired.

When you arrive at the park, it’s crowded with an all-black gathering of folks who eat lunch on blankets. And you discover that your family is the only white family at the celebration.

The place is alive with energy. There is laughter, games, drink, and music everywhere. Real music. The kind of modern music they’re playing in cities. They call it jazz. You’ve heard jazz a few times on your friend’s mom’s Victrola. You can’t get enough of the stuff.

“Hi, Reverend Amons,” a young black woman says to your father. “Happy Juneteenth.”

Your father takes her hand. “Delia, happy Juneteenth, sweetheart.”

“Happy Juneteenth,” your mother says, embracing the girl.

“What the heck is Juneteenth?” you announce.

“Ssshh,” your father says, straightening your jacket collar. “Just listen, David, and you might learn something.”

There he goes again.

Here come your friends running toward you. John, Jeremiah, and Terrence. They ask if you want to watch the baseball game.

Baseball? They have baseball here?

The three of you tear out across the open green. And you can hardly believe it, on the east side of the park are men playing actual baseball. Not boys. Men. The Kansas City Monarchs. A famous black ball club that travels the nation. They’re playing an exhibition game in honor of the day.

When you get to the field you ask Terrence, “Do you know what Juneteenth is?”

But Terrence is too busy buying hot peanuts from the peanut stand, counting his change. “Ssshhh,” he says.

Not him too.

The park lawn keeps filling with families who wear their Sunday best. Some young. Some old. Everyone is eating. Including you. You’ve eaten so much that you’re stomach is about to rupture.

After the game, you see your father approaching in the distance. He’s waving at people, shaking hands, giving hugs, laughing. And you’ve never noticed this before, but you notice it now: Your father sticks out like a sore thumb here. He is a plain, white clergyman in a tired linen suit.

Still, these people all know him by his first name because your father is a friend here.

For years he’s been spending night hours teaching reading-and-writing classes in the backs of his churches. This has gotten him fired from many congregations, but he does it anyway because he is a stubborn Scot. And because he is a human being.

His pupils are former slaves, juke musicians, and field workers. They all attend his classes carrying slate tablets, wearing big smiles. Your father teaches them everything from the ABCs to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he even helps them find steady work.

The picnic is coming to an end. The sun is setting in the west. The sky is painted orange. There is a small platform on the other side of the park. People are gathering for some kind of ceremony.

There are musicians warming up the crowd. An upright bass, a fiddle, a clarinet. You close your eyes and listen to the wild melodies coming from their enchanted instruments. God, it sounds better than a record.

An old man takes the stage. He is a preacher like your father. His skin is cocoa, his hair is blazing cotton. He offers a quick prayer, and your father tells you to remove your hat.

The old man’s words have a melody. He speaks in a voice that sounds like a trombone solo. After everyone amens, the old preacher tells a story about his childhood.

It’s a story of olden days, when 2000 Union soldiers galloped into his hometown of Galveston Bay, Texas, on June 19, 1865. He was still a slave then, living in a pine shack. The soldiers carried good news. In their pockets were miniature paper copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, which they read aloud to Texas slaves.

Then, the preacher unfolds a tattered slip of antique paper. He places spectacles onto his nose and begins to recite in a strong voice the words he heard as a young man:

“And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I, President Abraham Lincoln, do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated states, are, and henceforward shall be free.”

Everyone in the audience begins to applaud and cheer. Music starts to play. People are hugging each other. Some of the elderly are sobbing.

Your father is also crying. He squeezes you and your friend Terrence in his arms until your livers squeaks. The cheers get louder. And louder. Until your ears are about to split open.

“What’s happening?” you ask your father.

“Ssshhh,” he says. “Just listen.”

41 comments

  1. Deborah Blount - June 20, 2020 7:13 am

    Amen. “Just listen” is something we all should be doing right now.

    Reply
  2. oldlibrariansshelf - June 20, 2020 9:10 am

    Thanks, Sean. Those of us who do not have dark skin do not listen enough.

    Reply
  3. Lynn Evans - June 20, 2020 10:30 am

    Good luck on “learnin” ’em or findin’ ’em work !!!

    Reply
  4. Robert M Brenner - June 20, 2020 10:51 am

    Ssshhh!! I’m listening, Well done Sean…

    Reply
  5. PWS - June 20, 2020 11:13 am

    Beautiful. Thank you.

    Reply
  6. Colleen - June 20, 2020 11:33 am

    Your sweet spirited, hushed story got the message across better than the cacophony of loud voices and volatile actions that have been witnessed over the past three weeks.

    Reply
  7. Cynthia Harmon - June 20, 2020 11:37 am

    One of your best, Sean. I’m keeping this to share with my class. Students are good at keeping me integral.

    Reply
  8. Judy - June 20, 2020 11:48 am

    This one was very special! Thank you!

    Reply
  9. Susan - June 20, 2020 11:53 am

    Wow!

    Reply
  10. Diane M - June 20, 2020 12:04 pm

    Thank you for taking us there. This date will not be forgotten. We are ALL created in God’s image, ALL.

    Reply
  11. Diane M - June 20, 2020 12:07 pm

    Shhhhhhhhhb

    Reply
  12. Maggie Kruger - June 20, 2020 12:08 pm

    Perhaps your best work…big hug

    Reply
  13. Sheila Ahler - June 20, 2020 12:16 pm

    Thank you.. A beautiful reminder of a day we should never forget.

    Reply
  14. Wanda - June 20, 2020 12:49 pm

    Would that we all just listen and learn

    Reply
  15. Susan Ellzey - June 20, 2020 1:18 pm

    I love the way you explained Juneteenth!

    Reply
  16. Jan - June 20, 2020 1:36 pm

    Such a wonderful story. Your description is awesome. As someone else said, you took us there. I was holding my breath as I read to the end. I love the focus on listening … something we all need to focus on.

    Reply
  17. Molly Day - June 20, 2020 1:47 pm

    The year is 2020. Your written words speak. May we listen.👂

    Reply
  18. Ginger - June 20, 2020 2:19 pm

    I ask God to be “a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path”. And He answers. This morning it was through you. I sit here with tears and goosebumps and a move towards a better understanding. This is one of your finest works. Beautifully stated. Very appreciated. Love you.

    Reply
  19. Connie Faivre - June 20, 2020 2:20 pm

    Beautiful. Thank you.

    Reply
  20. Melanie - June 20, 2020 2:22 pm

    Beautiful message!

    Reply
  21. Maggie Rowe - June 20, 2020 2:25 pm

    Shared this with link and attribution on my FB page this morning. Told readers to get a box of tissues handy. Grateful for your writing, Sean.

    Reply
  22. Phil S. - June 20, 2020 2:29 pm

    Beautifully written way to remind us of the history behind the surge to bring this date to notice today. The date deserves to be remembered by all Americans, not just our black friends. It should be celebrated, especially in our hearts. In First Corinthians 13, Paul ends the chapter with this: “These three remain, Faith, Hope, and Love, but the greatest of these is love.” I pray daily that the words of the angel on the night of Jesus’s birth will come to pass: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.”

    Reply
  23. Patricia Gibson - June 20, 2020 2:56 pm

    Great story❤️

    Reply
  24. Christina - June 20, 2020 2:59 pm

    Love always wins. Thanks for this beautiful reminder

    Reply
  25. Tommy - June 20, 2020 3:21 pm

    Uh . . .read your history Sean. That piece of paper freed not one slave. Only Congress did that. After the war. With an amendment. And that paper left slaves in union states, still slaves.

    Reply
  26. Martha - June 20, 2020 3:56 pm

    Amen.

    Reply
  27. Becky Souders - June 20, 2020 3:56 pm

    Beautiful tribute, Sean Dietrich… don’t stop.

    Reply
  28. Linda Moon - June 20, 2020 4:34 pm

    “….because your father is a friend” and “because he is a human being.” These are timely, beautiful words for 1923 and for now, too. I’m reading the final volume of Carl Sandburg’s “Abraham Lincoln”. It was introduced to me by the best teacher I ever had: Miss Valera McInnis. She is included in at least one thesis (not mine), and I once promised you I would not turn my comments into a thesis! While learning from her, I should have listened more. Thank you, Sean, for causing me to learn and listen today. I think you have a thesis in you.

    Reply
  29. Alice Roose - June 20, 2020 5:13 pm

    Beautiful Sean! thank you

    Reply
  30. Pat - June 20, 2020 5:15 pm

    Beautiful! If we sssshed more often, maybe REAL dialogue could occur between our black and white brothers and sisters. This is my favorite story of yours in a long while. Thank you.

    Reply
  31. Anne Arthur - June 20, 2020 5:41 pm

    Listening… shhhhh.
    Great writing, Sean.

    Reply
  32. Steve Welch - June 20, 2020 6:38 pm

    Great piece Sean. Yes, we should all be quite and listen.

    Reply
  33. M. J. Dalby - June 20, 2020 6:43 pm

    Love this story—and the emphasis on listening to learn.

    What was the Scottish minister’s full name? I wanted to read more about him.

    Reply
  34. WB Henley - June 20, 2020 6:49 pm

    Listen. It’s the sound of hope!

    Reply
  35. Ann Mills - June 20, 2020 6:56 pm

    ♥️

    Reply
  36. MAM - June 20, 2020 8:58 pm

    A powerful story! and I can believe it, having grown up in Texas. We always as a family celebrated Juneteenth, even though we had only one Black person in our small town. He was also the only barber in town, so all the men went to him, including my Dad, who was of Polish, German and French ancestry. This story proves that ALL lives matter. Please don’t cancel me because I believe that!

    Reply
  37. Jane Beck - June 21, 2020 1:36 am

    Best explanation ever.

    Reply
  38. Toni - June 21, 2020 2:12 am

    Really beautiful thank you.

    Reply
  39. Clint - June 21, 2020 6:40 am

    Beautiful Sean. Thank you for adding your voice to this conversation and highlighting this special day for our country.

    Reply
  40. Rosaland - June 22, 2020 1:58 pm

    Well done! Thank you for sharing this relevant story and message!

    Reply
  41. Jody - June 24, 2020 7:18 pm

    Thank you.

    Reply

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