There’ve been Juneteenth celebrations on Martha’s Vineyard before, but Friday’s was by far the biggest and most diverse. We gathered at Veterans Park in Vineyard Haven, then marched — well, “walked” is probably the better word — the three and a half miles to Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs.
The gaps in the line can’t be readily explained by social distancing; more, it’s that we move forward at different speeds, and the participants included small children, smaller kids in strollers, and plenty of grownups who chatted as well as chanted while they walked.
And yes, everybody I saw was wearing a mask or other face covering. (By the way, early reports indicate that the protests that have been taking place across the country since George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis have not led to a spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases. In all the photos and videos I’ve seen, nearly everyone is wearing a face covering. It may be that face coverings are even more effective at preventing transmission than the experts have thought.)
The signs were many, varied, and nearly all homemade: Black Lives Matter, Silence = Violence, I Can’t Breathe . . . Cardboard has soared in popularity for signage, perhaps because EduComp and other purveyors of posterboard have been closed since mid-March. A pickup drove by with “8:46” printed on the back window in lavender tape: the time George Floyd was pinned to the ground by Derek Chauvin before he died.
At Ocean Park we gathered around the iconic gazebo, the crowd augmented by quite a few who’d just got off work or who lived nearby; it was a Friday afternoon, after all. Some of the 10 speakers were more audible than others — the “sound system” was a bullhorn that did a surprisingly good job in the open air. Caroline Hunter and James Jennings know how to project, and Amber Henry had everyone’s attention as she spoke of the death of her brother at police hands 10 years ago. Say his name, she said, and we did, over and over: D.J. Henry, D.J. Henry, D.J. Henry . . .
All the speakers emphasized that protesting is not enough. “What are you going to do?” asked Russ Ashton, and the crowd roared back “Vote!”
And more, especially for the white people for whom police brutality is front and center for perhaps the first time: educate ourselves, listen, learn, speak out.
About Juneteenth: No, the current president isn’t responsible for bringing it to people’s attention. Laura Love’s great song “Saskatchewan” tells the story of how word of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Galveston, Texas, two and a half years after the fact. Why did word take so long to travel from D.C. to Texas? Well, true, the Civil War didn’t end till April 1865, so there’s that, but as the Juneteenth history site notes: “Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All of which, or none of these versions could be true.”
I’ve been told that the “Juneteenth” isn’t simply a conflation of “June” + “nineteenth,” the date that General Granger announced emancipation in Galveston. Instead, the story goes, those who spread the word weren’t sure of the exact date or maybe it got lost in transmission, but everyone knew it was in the middle of June, one of those days that ends with “-teenth.” Hence “Juneteenth.” That could be true or not, but it makes sense to me.
As Laura Love tells it, some newly emancipated Texans did head north, reach Saskatchewan, and establish a community there. Her own grandmother, born in Texas in 1880, eventually headed in that direction but only got as far as Nebraska, which is where Laura grew up.