Freedom and the Black Church on Juneteenth
The Black church is at the center of emancipatory events like Juneteenth.
In her book On Juneteenth, Pulitzer Prize winner Dr. Annette Gordon-Reed wrote, “Black Texans were determined, despite the early intimidating anger of Whites, to celebrate what was initially called Emancipation Day. Most of the first celebrations were in churches.”
These first celebrations reveal how the roots of the Black Church begin in the voices of enslaved people. There, out of their mouths, came the spirituals and blues, sounds of rebellion amid white intimidation and surveillance. To get away, many “stole away to Jesus” into the deep thickets and woods, meeting in secret—singing, dancing, praying, preaching, and plotting pending sojourns of escape. Dr. Albert Raboteau, in Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, describes enslaved congregations—both Christian and non-Christian, religious and nonreligious—that gave the Black Church its foundation. A constant theme Raboteau illuminates is the history surrounding enslaved congregations as hubs for social interaction and spiritual engagement, especially on Sundays.
Despite the danger, slaves continued to hold their own religious gatherings…and risk threats of flogging at the hands of their earthly masters in order to worship their “Divine Master” as they saw fit.
The spiritual and religious expressions of slave religion provide a guide for understanding the contours of emancipatory celebrations. Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, and, leading up to January 1, 1863, the declared day of legal freedom, enslaved people held watch night services, a tradition many Black Churches continue today. Viewing the first day of the new year as “Emancipation Day” adds a greater understanding to the eating rituals of black-eyed peas and collard greens to welcome the year, as they embody flavors of hope. And developing a deeper understanding of the sources of our traditions reclaims the narrative that suggests African Americans have always been adherers and mobilizers of their own freedom. Central to that act of freedom has been food, fellowship, laughter, and praise. Enslaved people who were aware of Lincoln’s actions up to Juneteenth might have done what Booker T. Washington characterizers in Up From Slavery:
As the great day [of emancipation] grew nearer, there was more ringing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom. True, they had sung those same verses before, but they had been careful to explain that the ‘freedom’ in these songs referred to the next world, and had no connection with life in this world. Now they gradually threw off the mask, and were not afraid to let it be known that the “freedom” in their songs meant freedom of the body in this world.
Booker T. explains the roots of what W.E.B. Du Bois described in The Souls of Black Folk, when he said, “And so by fateful chance the Negro folksong—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas.” Washington’s experience and Du Bois’s words surmise soulful rhythms like,
Oh Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you moan,
Oh Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you moan,
Pharaoh’s army got drowned
Oh Mary, don’t you weep.
While the drowning of the Confederacy through the combat victory of the Union might not have stopped the tears from coming, it did give enslaved people a sense of hope about enslavement’s soon doom through divine intervention. Speaking of enslaved Christians, in particular, James Cone, in The Spirituals and The Blues, said, “The message of liberation in the spirituals is based on the biblical contention that God’s righteousness is revealed in the deliverance of the oppressed from the shackles of human bondage.” And with this faith, the enslaved Christians, yearning for freedom, echoed songs like,
Children, we shall be free
When the Lord shall appear
Give ease to the sick, give sight to the blind,
Enable the cripple to walk;
He’ll raise the dead from under the earth,
And give them permission to talk.
Spirituals like this one, that combined the otherworldly with the earthly, posited what Dr. Emilie Townes might call “apocalyptic hope,” where the blaze of glory unearths the truths of moral wisdom and hopes of unmitigated freedom.
Obtaining freedom from slavery, in the aftermath of Lincoln’s Proclamation, would be gradual, given the resistant disposition of enslavers, unwilling to relinquish their perverted grip from the institution of chattel bondage.
Before some enslaved people were officially informed of his order, Abraham Lincoln would be dead, assassinated by a Confederate sympathizer. Unlike places such as Kentucky and Maryland—states that owned slaves but sat at the tip of the Mason Dixon line—Texas was explicitly mentioned in the original Emancipation Proclamation, yet they failed to comply with it. General Robert E. Lee surrendered in April of 1865, and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, was captured a month later that same year. Still, Texas remained unmoved by the outcome of the war.
On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger and his troops reached Galveston, Texas, announcing that all slaves had been freed.
After official word reached Texas, emancipated African Americans did several things with this newfound freedom: they searched for their relatives, bought land, established homes, and built brick and mortar churches, transferring their religious resistance from brush arbors to buildings.
In Houston, Texas, where thousands of African Americans migrated after emancipation, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, the oldest African American church in the city, began in the damp dewiness of the Buffalo Bayou, a swampy land that stretches for miles. There, Black Houstonians formed what was coined “Baptist Hill” in 1866, one year after Granger brought word of freedom. Two years later, nine African Americans purchased land to move the church from dewy land to dry ground. Rev. John “Henry” Jack Yates became the church’s first pastor. Rev. Yates encouraged Black Houstonians to buy land, build their homes, create businesses, and pursue education. His emphasis on ownership and education were central advocacy tools many Black preachers and leaders proclaimed throughout their communities.
At the turn of the decade, in 1872, Yates joined Richard Allen, Richard Brock, and Rev. David Elias Dibble and rallied Black Houstonians to purchase greenspace for celebratory and communal purposes: a park in the city’s Third Ward. On a land expanding ten acres, this park was coined “Emancipation Park,” where Black Houstonians hosted festivals to celebrate “Juneteenth,” eating food, having fun, and fellowshipping in the spirit of freedom. Antioch Missionary Baptist Church and Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church worked together to create the Colored People’s Festival and the Emancipation Park Association, symbolizing communal collaboration amid American Reconstruction.
The story of the Emancipation Park, as does the origins of emancipatory celebrations across the South, in particular, begins with the Black Church.
Congregations birthed out of brush arbors and fortified into brick and mortar buildings have now metamorphosed into coffee shops and virtual spaces. While the dynamics of the Black Church have slightly shifted, its history is a useful tool for engaging the past and thinking about the future.
Amid the tug-of-war between cultural justice and state-sanctioned violence, the centering of Juneteenth as a critical piece of Black Church history gives valuable context to some core pillars concerning African American spiritual and religious resistance, celebration, and community.