Commentary: Independence Mall, meet Juneteenth

It took 151 years but an official Juneteenth celebration arrived at Independence Mall with a parade and wreath-laying ceremony last weekend outside the slave quarters of the President's House at Sixth and Market Streets.

Juneteenth is the name given to June 19, 1865, when Union Gen. Gordon Granger, backed by 2,000 troops, announced from a balcony of Ashton Villa on Galveston Island, "The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free ..."

This was news that day to the assembled former slaves in Galveston, even though Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation 21/2 years earlier, on Jan. 1, 1863.

News and justice traveled slow in those days, but gradually June 19, and the term Juneteenth, have been adopted as a date of celebration for the end of slavery in the United States.

And where better to mark emancipation deferred in Philadelphia than at the back of the President's House, where nine of George and Martha Washington's slaves lived between 1790 and 1796 in the very shadow of Independence Hall, despite the fact that Pennsylvania was the first state to outlaw slavery in 1780.

In his remarks during a ceremony on the lawn of Independence Mall after the wreath laying, Mayor Kenney captured the essence of the place and the moment.

"Let it be known that all men were created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," he said, "Right in that building there. And it wasn't true. It just wasn't true. It was true for white European men with land. It wasn't true for African Americans. It wasn't true of women. It wasn't true for immigrants. It wasn't true for anyone but them.

"This country's history has been an ongoing struggle to make that statement true. And we're not done by any stretch of the imagination. We're not done."

Kenney described African American history as "American history that's been delayed and denied. It's been ripped out of American history books for a purpose, And that purpose, as Malcolm X once said, 'If you don't know you ever did anything, you don't know you can do anything.'"

Kenney described civil rights activist and baseball player Octavius Catto as a "giant of Philadelphia history" who was the "Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King of his day." Catto was assassinated at age 32 at Seventh and South Streets on Election Day in 1871 for promoting black voter registration and streetcar desegregation.

"Blacks didn't just sit in the back of streetcars, they weren't even allowed to ride on streetcars with whites in the 1860s," Kenney said, expressing his frustration that he didn't learn about Catto in school. "I was in my 40s before I learned what he had done."

As he completed his remarks, Kenney was hailed by the master of ceremonies as "Mayor John Brown."

Earlier, Philadelphia music giant Kenny Gamble posed four questions when he addressed the crowd "to test the things we think. say, or do: First is it the truth? What we heard here today about our ancestors, is that the truth?

"Is it fair to all concerned that we tell this truth? Everybody's got to come to grips with this. Especially African Americans. We have to come to grips with it and do for ourselves.

"Third, will it build goodwill and better friendships if we expose this truth? Sure it will be. It will build goodwill and better relationships when everyone realizes that there's a wrong that's been done.

"And fourth, will it be beneficial to all concerned? Not only for this generation, but for all generations to come, it will be beneficial."

Then Gamble led the crowd in a call-and-response promise - "We're making a song here," Gamble said:

"We will never ..."

"We will never ..."

"Never, evah, evah ..."

"Never, evah. evah ..."

"EVAH, never, never ..."

"EVAH, never never ..."

"Forget our ancestors."

"Forget our ancestors."

Afterward, I ran into a white acquaintance inside the Independence Visitors Center.

"What was that parade all about?" she asked.

"Juneteenth," I said. "The 151st anniversary of the end of slavery."

She scowled and commented, "I hope they're not still talking about that."

Clark DeLeon writes regularly for Currents. deleonc88@aol.com