Juneteenth, commemorating the date in 1865 when the last group of black slaves learned of their emancipation, was celebrated across the Triad in varied settings befitting the multiplicity of black life, both as a historic fact and contemporary reality in the 21st Century.
The unifying strand — both in the life of a Mandinka man named Abraham, who came to the Moravian settlement of Salem in the 18th Century as a slave, and the Black Lives Matter activists assembled on a sliver of land in Greensboro’s Glenwood neighborhood on Sunday — is the continual quest for liberation and dignity.
Likely born around 1730, Abraham was a Mandinka warrior who was captured during the slave wars in West Africa, transported in the harrowing trans-Atlantic crossing by European slave traders to a French colony in the Caribbean and then likely conveyed through Virginia before he was brought in captivity to Salem. As a convert to the Moravian faith, Abraham was required to write a memoir as a self-reported account of his life, historian Jon Sensbach explained, which is why his story survives.
Following the violent and dislocating trans-Atlantic journey known as the Middle Passage, many slaves tried to commit suicide, but others had to figure out what kind of life they would have in North America.
“He’s alone, he’s lost,” Sensbach told a refined group crammed into the James A. Gray Auditorium at the Old Salem Visitor Center for a white-tablecloth luncheon on June 16. “He doesn’t know anybody. He’s put to work in the tannery just up the street. He doesn’t speak German, which is what everybody speaks in this community.”
Sensbach, the author of A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina, 1763-1840, described Abraham as someone with “a rebellious spirit,” noting that he tried to escape Salem several times, staying away as long as three weeks. But in 1780, Abraham was baptized into the Moravian church, giving him spiritual, if not economic and social equality with whites. The tradeoff for membership in the Moravian community, which honored slaves’ marriages, was being one of only a handful of Africans in North Carolina, Sensbach said, compared to South Carolina, where thousands of slaves worked on plantations under grueling and oppressive conditions, but likely maintained a stronger cultural connection to Africa.
The Juneteenth luncheon at Old Salem also carried the legacy of freedom forward by honoring two women, LaRue P. Cunningham, a retired teacher who has made upwards of a thousand dresses to send to Africa and the Caribbean, and Sharee Fowler, who works through the United Way as partnership director for Forsyth Promise, a network to promote cradle-to-career success for children in poor communities. The women received the St. Philips Cedric C. Rodney Unity Award, named after the church’s late pastor.
Cunningham is known for the saying, “I have not done my part until the whole is done,” Cedric Rodney’s widow, Mae, told the gathering.
Accepting her award, Fowler said the heirs of struggle are called to “be a cloud of witnesses,” and thanked her mentors and peers “who held me and loved me and held me to account when I misstepped and misspoke.”
The forward motion of liberation was even more apparent at the Juneteenth Jamboree, a gathering hosted by the Queer People of Color Collective on a half-acre sliver of land owned by Fahiym Hanna in Greensboro’s Glenwood neighborhood. Red, green and black streamers adorned a fence fashioned from salvaged children’s bikes at the entrance to the tract, dubbed the Land/Sun Flower Garden. A sound system ready to be enlisted into service was set up near a garden shed, and further back an L-shaped configuration of folding tables provided space for vendors’ wares — clothing, jewelry, poetry posters — and voter registration forms. An ice cream truck idled next to a pair of food trucks, while jump ropes, bubbles and rubber balls populated a table adjacent to a lemonade stand.
Dressed in a white, flowy blouse and pants, activist April Parker called the assembly together for an opening ceremony.
“Ain’t no power like the power of the people, ’cause the power of the people don’t stop,” the crowd chanted at Parker’s instigation.
“P-O-W-E-R,” they chanted. “We got the power because we are the collective.”
Parker and Byron Gladden, a candidate for Guilford County School Board, shared emcee duties, spotlighting black vendors and promoting black empowerment.
“Today we are celebrating,” Parker said. “Our people are free. We celebrate the date when those that were finally emancipated learned about their freedom. Because emancipation wasn’t something someone else did for us. Black people did it for themselves. Every day we come together in the spirit of black joy it is an act of resistance.”
She noted that the celebration could have been held in a park.
“This is on a free black man’s land — Fahiym Hanna,” Parker said. “Come back and nurture this space. Cultivate it.”