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Juneteenth: Finally A Federal Holiday

A History lesson

It is common practice to make new year's resolutions to turn over a new leaf and make a fresh start for the indefinite future. On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln penned the Emancipation Proclamation declaring all person held as slaves within the rebellious states be freed to live life on their own terms. This document solidified the notion that the already war for the Union was becoming more a war for freedom. One aspect of this dynamic was any Confederate region overcome by the Union Army was immediately subject to this proclamation. Liberated slaves often joined the Union Army and Navy to become the new liberators. My own great, great grandfather (Major James Quackenbush Rice) died in the Third Battle Of Winchester on September 19, 1864 fighting for this cause as part of the Union Army.

A Slave Ship

La Amistad was a 120 foot two masted brigantine schooner owned by a Spaniard and based out of Cuba. Strangely enough, her name means "friendship" in Spanish. But, she entered the slave trade in the late 1930s - by which time the United States and Great Britain had declared slavery illegal. La Amistad left Havana on June 28, 1839 with cargo consisting of sugar and 53 Mehndi tribespeople from Sierra Leon, who had been sold into slavery. Once offshore, the captives sawed off their shackles and overwhelmed the crew by killing the captain and many of the crew. They spared the two slave owners and demanded to be returned to their homeland, but the two Spaniards tricked the Mehndi by sailing up the eastern seaboard of the US - eventually being intercepted by the USS Washington near Montauk Point at the end of Long Island. La Amistad was then towed to New London, CT and later sold to an owner in Newport, RI. A replica of La Amistad was built by Mystic Seaport from (mostly) traditional materials and launched on March 25, 2000 as Freedom Schooner Amistad. She was in drydock for routine maintenance last spring.

A Popular Movie

I had the privilege of living in Newport, RI during the filming of a popular movie released in 1997 titled "Amistad." In this very bloody drama, the leader of the Mehndi named Sengbe Pieh emerged as a role model for courage and independence as he learned to communicate with his English speaking captors. There was considerable back and forth in the court proceedings as the question of jurisdiction over Spanish nationals collided with Cuban "property" and basic human rights of the Mehndi. The case moved to New Haven, CT and eventually rose to the US Supreme Court - where former President of the US, John Quincy Adams, stepped in to defend the Mehndi. Human rights finally prevailed as the former slaves were freed and most of the survivors were returned to their African home in 1842.

The movie itself was filmed in both Newport and Mystic, CT. The cast included Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Matthew McConaughey, and Djimon Hounsou as Sengbe Pieh (pronounced Cinqué). In the film, former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) makes a stirring speech in defense of the Mehndi to help win their freedom. The win for freedom was actually a loss for then President Martin Van Buren as his Secretary of State, John Forsyth, had taken the side of the Spaniards claiming that the Mehndi were property of Spain. Van Buren went on to lose the presidential election in 1840.  News of the release of the Mehndi and their return to Africa created tension between the northern and southern US. These tensions escalated after several similar uprisings aboard slave ships leading up to the State of South Carolina seceding from the Union on December 20, 1860.

A Federal Holiday

It appears that it is possible for the US Senate to agree on certain important issues. Juneteenth was just given a unanimous thumbs up to become our newest federal holiday less than 24 hours ago. The legislation now needs to clear a vote in the House of Representatives and be signed into law by President Joe Biden. It seems this progress is very likely and long overdue. On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger announced the end of slavery from Galveston, TX.  This marked the start of an annual celebration in churches in Texas that soon spread across the South. Momentum built through the early 20th century until Vietnam War protests took center stage in the political arena. As of 2020, all US states recognized Juneteenth as a holiday - except for the Dakotas and Hawaii. The rise of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement after the death of George Floyd has reignited the flame of freedom sparked by the Civil War and civil rights movements. Some call June 19 our second independence day!

A Start To  Reparations

We cannot change our past. Our experiences shape us as people, families, communities, states, and nations. We can only hope to learn from and apply those learnings to make our future better - for all people on this small planet. From worlds away, we humans may all look, sound, smell, and behave the same. Upon closer inspection, however, we are all unique. That is the beauty of our species that makes life full and vibrant. A world of identical people would be truly boring and uninteresting to me. Let us remember the past so that we can make good choices for our collective future. An excellent first step is to end oppression in every corner of the US (yes, our "developed" nation) and on every land beyond our shores. Every person has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Happy Juneteenth!





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