Celebrating Juneteenth by Emancipating History

Celebrating Juneteenth by Emancipating History

Celebrating Juneteenth by Emancipating History

A Black family’s pilgrimage to Mississippi.

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Several years ago my dad, Gerald Lenoir, discovered the plantation where our family was enslaved. Through his extensive genealogical research, he determined that my great-great-grandfather Thomas H. Lenoir was born into slavery on the Lenoir Plantation in Morgantown, Miss., in March of 1844. After the Civil War, Thomas married my great-great-grandmother Laura; together they had 17 children. Thomas died on March 1, 1929, at the age of 84 in Sartinville, Walthall County, Miss. My dad also discovered that the white Lenoir enslavers were originally French and had traveled to New York and then the Carolinas before settling in Morgantown, where they established a cotton and tobacco plantation.

We immediately felt a calling and planned to go Morgantown to see the land where our people had toiled. In the days following my father’s revelation, I took the name “J.D. Lenoir” in the blues band I play harmonica for and I wrote the lyrics for and recorded a song titled “Where I Got My Name (Down In Mississippi),” in which I sung the lines, “My family fled / now I’m headed on back / I got find the place where white owned Black. ”

Tragically, we were just preparing to leave when the Delta variant of Covid surged, forcing us to cancel the trip. When Covid case rates dipped, we started to plan our trip again—but then my dad had a stroke that left him incapacitated for months (and still dramatically reduces his energy) and we had to cancel the trip another time. My brother Jamana had also wanted to travel with us, but he had never traveled beyond the West Coast because of a severe fear of flying. Then I got Covid, which developed into a particularly debilitating form of long Covid—leaving me dizzy and fatigued for now over 10 months—and we had to cancel the trip a third time.

During these months, expectations built as we longed for this connection with our ancestors. We also were witnessing with increasing distress the multitude of legislative attempts to require educators to lie to students about the history of structural racism in the United States. These anti-truth bills and policies have been proposed in 49 states, ratified in 18, and enacted by scores of local school districts across the country. Many of the proposed bans (such as in Iowa and West Virginia) forbid teaching “divisive concepts,” including outlawing any teaching that their state or the “United States is fundamentally racist or sexist.” Some states (Oklahoma and Florida) prohibit pedagogy that makes students “feel discomfort” because of their race or sex—a provision that often precludes teaching the harsh realities of American slavery. Some bans (such as those in Texas and Idaho) specifically exclude the teaching of what they understand to be “critical race theory”—a term they have defined so broadly it can apply to any learning about the history of racism.

According to the CRT Forward Tracking Project, educational gag orders on teachers currently affect over 22 million public school children—almost half of the country’s 50.8 million public school students. As we saw these bills proliferate, our family noted the absurdist satire of the US adopting Juneteenth as a national holiday at the same time that increasing numbers of children were being banned from learning the truth about slavery and the enslaved labor that built this country.

Whether it was the contemporary stories of educators being forced to leave the classroom for teaching the truth about slavery, or our ancestors urging us on from the other side, my dad, brother, and I all came to the realization that despite the obstacles each one of us faced, it was time to embark on our journey to learn the truth about our family’s history.

On June 1, the three of us, along with my dad’s friend John, traveled to Morgantown, Miss., to find the Lenoir Plantation. On our way, we stopped at a gas station outside of Morgantown and conversed with an older Black woman, who told us, “I don’t know anything about Morgantown, except that it’s not a place for us to go.” These ominous words, coupled with the knowledge that, during Jim Crow, Morgantown had been a “sundown town” (an all-white municipality that required Black people to be gone by sunset), caused apprehension as we approached the former planation.

Before the trip, my dad had connected online with a man named Louis Morgan, who descends from the founders of the town. Louis greeted us when arrived and soon eased our nerves with his wholehearted embrace of our pilgrimage. He gave us a history of the area and then led us to a barbed-wire fence that separated us by several hundred yards from the land where our ancestors had worked and lived. As we filmed, snapped pictures, and strained to see it more clearly, the white man who now owns the land approached us from the other side of the fence. To be honest, I was nervous about what his reaction to our presence—and our purpose for being there—might be.

He began by asking us what we were doing and where we were from. “I have traveled from California with my sons to show them the land where our kin were enslaved,” my dad boldly replied. To our surprise, the landowner was moved my dad’s story and invited us to come to the other side of the fence and back to a clearing that he told us was the location of a cemetery where our ancestors were buried. When we reached the gravesite, we saw that only one weathered headstone—which was missing the portion with the name—remained.

We requested and were granted some time as a family to be at the gravesite by ourselves to pay our respects and hold a ceremony to honor those whose experience during slavery has profoundly shaped our lives; I count these moments among the most precious of my life. We buried a box next to the gravesite with various offerings to our ancestors. One of the items we placed in the box was a copy of the letter I wrote, which I read aloud before we buried it. Standing in the scorching sun, I wiped my sweaty brow and thought about the torment our kin endured on this very land, before I cleared my throat and began reading these words:

Beloved ancestors,

Many obstacles have been placed in the way of us returning to the land where you were enslaved, abused, and forced to work to enrich the white Lenoir enslavers. The pandemic, a stroke, a fear of flying, and long Covid delayed our journey here. Before that, the education system withheld any knowledge of where you came from, the cruelty you endured, or the creativity and beautiful resistance you contributed to the world. The system of white supremacy used many tactics to deceive us and prevent our family from making this pilgrimage to where you were held captive and denied manumission.

Despite the many obstacles and the plots to hide this place from us—and deny us knowledge of this land and your existence here—we have found it! Your family has returned to claim you!

We have returned to the forced enslaved labor camp that was politely referred to as the Lenoir plantation. We have returned to the place where you no doubt spent endless hours picking cotton and tobacco, with the promise of the lash if you slowed down or refused. We have returned to the site of unspeakable horrors.

But we have also returned to the place where you all dared to live. A place where you all had the incredible courage to love—despite knowing that falling in love could inflict a terrible pain when your beloved was sold away or worked to death. We are here! We are at the very place where you found ways to guard your humanity from those who thought it was possible to steal. We are here where you sang together, granted forgiveness to a friend who hurt your feelings, dressed the wounds of those who were injured, and held those in need of comfort.

We are here to experience a truth deeper than any that can be understood intellectually. We are here to make a promise to you, to this land, and to each other: you will not be forgotten.

It doesn’t matter if they pass laws that make it illegal to speak of you, teach about you, or learn about you, because those laws don’t govern us. Only truth and love govern us, and so we will pass on the knowledge of this land and your existence here to our posterity and to all who we encounter.

We send to you our deepest gratitude for gifting us the will to survive and the spirit of resistance that you passed to us through your blood and through your stories.

With eternal love,

Jesse, Jamana, & Gerald

Our emancipated ancestors may have celebrated Juneteenth, but the history of their lives has remained in bondage—and as I promised to them that day, we will set their story free, regardless of the consequences. As I knelt there on the ground our ancestors lay beneath, I felt their love being returned with a wave of light and healing that washed over us. That moment will sustain me until my last breath in pursuing and teaching the truth about the beauty and adversity of my enslaved ancestors and the yet uncompensated and unrecognized role their labor played in the establishment of this country.

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