Franklin’s McLemore House hosts echoes of jubilant celebrations.
As the annual Juneteenth celebration commenced, the words of the Negro National Anthem, sung by Charlene Harrison, rang out across rows of people crowding the shaded green lawn. Harrison, a native of Williamson County, says she's been in attendance at Franklin's annual Juneteenth celebration practically every year and recognizes the day as a time to remember her “ancestors who paved the way to freedom for us through their own trials and tribulations.”
For Harrison, the celebration is also an opportunity to highlight some of the lesser-known details of the lives of those ancestors and to remember the contributions ex-slaves made to society.
Juneteenth, also called Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, is a Black Independence Day in its own right. It commemorates the day that the last enslaved black people in the United States gained liberation from bondage on June 19, 1865. Although American students in history classes across the country are taught that the 1863 passage of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln freed black people from bondage, the historical reality is far more bleak, as the road to freedom was painstakingly slow.
The federal government was unable to legally abolish slavery in the United States until the passage of the 13th Amendment.
History buffs may know that this amendment wasn’t passed until 1865, two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. News of the passage spread slowly, and slave owners who received exponentially large financial incentives from free labor were reluctant to free their slaves. As the Civil War continued to rage on, black people were caught in the middle of the bloody conflict. Although black people didn't serve as Confederate soldiers, they were forced into service in the form of body servants.
On June 19, 1865, just one month before the Civil War ended, Union General Gordon Granger took to a balcony in Galveston, Texas, and announced that all slaves were free. Modern day Juneteenth celebrations are an echo of the jubilant celebrations that are said to have taken place in the streets of Galveston that day.
Each year, African-Americans across the country set aside the day to remember the difficult path to freedom endured by their ancestors less than two centuries ago. One local celebration was held at the McLemore House, an African-American Museum in Franklin. The rich history of the McLemore House makes it the perfect location for such a momentous celebration. The house was built by a successful ex-slave named Harvey McLemore, whose descendants continued to occupy the home for over 117 years. Eventually, one of Harvey’s descendants ran her own hair salon from the house. Several items in the home, including a few floorboards and pieces of furniture are originals, used by the McLemore family themselves.
Harvey bought the land on which the McLemore House stands today from his former slave owner and built the home himself. Terry Blackburn, a Juneteenth celebration attendee and Fisk University student, noted that Harvey maintained a close relationship with his former master, even years after he was emancipated. Blackburn appreciated the fact that this event allows for Black history to be represented in a “truthful manner.”
While Juneteenth will always be partially shrouded by the dark circumstances (a need for an Emancipation Day in the first place), attendees didn’t allow the harsh realities to dampen spirits. The day was remembered with respect to the joy of the jubilant celebrations that commenced in the streets of Galveston so many years ago, — cake walks, dance competitions, food trucks, and free ice cream kept audiences engaged.
Black Independence Day does not receive the same level of national attention as July 4, but the date represents a pivotal moment in time for black people who sought to be recognized as citizens, voters and complete human beings. Juneteenth is a time for African Americans to take pride in their history, recognize the toil of their ancestors and remember how far they have come — within a few generations, the McLemores went from slaves to entrepreneurs.
Although the road to complete liberation still stretches far ahead of many black people in America today, stories such as the McLemores often revisited on Juneteenth, highlight the resilience of people of color across the globe.