June 19 marks the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, the day when the enslaved people in Texas received news from Union soldiers that not only was the Civil War over, but that they had been freed two-and-a-half years before.
This news was greeted with joy and prayer. Omnira Institute will celebrate the end of slavery in the U.S. with prayer, drums and song on Saturday, June 20 at Lake Merritt at the Boathouse picnic area from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The event is free and open to the public.
“There is a lot to celebrate, but there’s also a lot to remember,” said Wanda Ravernell, the institute’s executive director.
For one thing, it has been lost to common memory that the Emancipation Proclamation not only declared freedom for the enslaved, but invited Black men, free and slave, to join the armed forces to fight for their freedom.
“It’s 150 years later, and it’s all but forgotten that the North was losing the war in 1863. The fighting had reached Pennsylvania, next was New York,” said Ravernell.
More than 200,000 Black men took up arms. There is no doubt that their presence turned the tide of the war. “One thing that is little known is that Black regiments were involved in the final rout of Robert E. Lee’s confederate army at Appomattox and present at the surrender on April 9, 1865,” Ravernell said.
According to the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C., “United States Colored Troops traveling along the Southside Railroad led the Union pursuit of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army. Headed west, Lee’s army was forced to turn south by Gen. Phil Sheridan. In the early morning of April 9, 1865, along Lynchburg Road, just south and west of Appomattox Court House, Lee’s army skirmished with the Union’s soldiers of African descent, with the 41st USCT in the forward skirmish.”
“Lee soon discerned that his army could no longer continue to fight. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, and 13 USCT regiments were present to witness the surrender.”
The Black soldiers were praised for their bravery and skill in battle, one that they believed would be their last battle for freedom. “Then, Black lives mattered only in their worth as chattel. They were fighting for their dignity as human beings,” Ravernell said.
From Appomattox, the soldiers continued fighting in other areas of the South where there were more slaves to be liberated. But, armed Black men and Black men on horseback, given the authority to act as men threatened white supremacy.
“Returning soldiers could not rest in the pride of their victory without risking vilification and worse from whites in the North and South,” Ravernell said.
At the end of the war, when all of the troops were brought back to Wash., D.C., the Black soldiers were not allowed to march in the victory parade.
The African American Civil War Museum was a key player in rectifying that slight by holding a parade in Wash., D.C., where the descendants of USCT soldiers marched in the names of their forefathers on May 17, 2015, wearing period dress.
The event commemorated the May 23, 1865 Grand Review of the Armies, which was meant to lift the nation’s spirits after a protracted Civil War, but also the grief over Pres. Lincoln’s assassination just the month before.
Over the course of the two-day event, 150,000 Union troops marched through the capital, but none of the Black soldiers were included. It would be just one of many signals that the freedom they had fought for was not complete.
And like 1865, the 2015 Grand Review Parade took place as the nation was rocked again by pain and grief. This time it was massive protests in nearby Baltimore, MD, in response to the alleged unlawful arrest and injury while in police custody of a Black man, Freddie Gray, who died on April 21.
“At that time, and for decades afterward, Black peoples’ strategy was to prove that they were not docile children or animals that could not manage freedom,” Ravernell said.
“What better way to show they deserved freedom than to fight for it? They thought it would be their last fight. How disappointed they would be to see that the battle is not yet won.”
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