After the Day After
Juneteenth celebrations and the realities of freedom
By Psyche A. Williams-Forson
© Valerii Dekhtiarenko / Adobe Stock. Color treatment by Carter/Reddy
My name is Georgette, babbbbbbyyyyyy... I’m free...
It was either the 17th, 18th, or 19th of June in the mid-1970s when we lined the streets of Jefferson Avenue in Buffalo, New York. In those days, Juneteenth was an entire weekend. Children like my sisters and me were everywhere, running, screaming, and playing while mothers tried unsuccessfully to get us to stand to the side as we waited for the parade to start. There was much rejoicing, dancing, eating, and learning at Black history workshops. It was colorful. There were daishikis and afro-picks, incense, and bean pies. It was loud with the sounds of the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The air smelled of good food (Scottie’s Steak House, the Afro House), hair oil, car exhausts, and sweat.
She seemed to come out of nowhere. Ablaze in hot pink, brown wig askew, and platform glitter boots. I heard my dad say, “Here she comes!” She wore a short-fitted romper or what we called back then “hot pants.” Her lips were red, and her smile was big as she sashayed down the middle of the street to the chants of “Georgette! Georgette!” Today, she might be known as a trans woman. But back then, she, and others like her, were matter-of-factly just described as a “sissy,” as in, “Well, you know Georgette, she one of them sissies.” And given the cheers and her centerstage presence at the head of the parade, she seemed to be just “Georgette.” But to young eyes seeing Georgette move in freedom as she pranced along the street to the steady rhythms of the emancipation celebration drums, she was fyah! She was bold, she was beautiful, and she was Black. She lives on in my memories because of the family movies taken by my dad during one of these celebrations. Almost fifty years later, I wonder what she did the day after all the jubilant attention. What realities did she awaken to? How was her life different or the same the day after being surrounded by the sights, smells, and sounds of Black love and the momentary festivities of liberation?
Red, Black, and Green...
In his book, Oh Freedom! Afro-American Emancipation Celebrations, the late Dr. William Wiggins describes one of his Juneteenth observances in June 1972 while conducting his research. The celebration took place “just west of Ennis (TX)” with about twenty people, including “relatives and friends who had driven down from Austin for the day.” As the group gathered under shady oak trees on the forty-acre farm, before them were long tables draped with white cloth and covered with “platters of barbecued chicken, long link sausages and brisket-sized chunks of beef, bowls of steaming brown beans seasoned with hunks of jowl bacon, a cold apple, lettuce and mayonnaise salad, trays of white ‘store-bought’ bread, frosty pitchers of red lemonade, jugs of homemade blackberry wine, and a pan of peach cobbler.” Over the weekend, Wiggins added, he talked to many revelers about their celebrations of Juneteenth while “eating too much free barbecue, potato salad, cornbread, and lemon meringue pie.”
Since Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021, we have read about foods like these being appropriate (even necessary) to eat in remembrance of the joyous occasion. The holiday commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and informed the still enslaved Black people that not only were they free but had been for more than two years since President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. In recognizing the anniversary, we have learned that it can and often is celebrated with barbecues, parades, speakers, sermons, family gatherings, and most often, the presence of “red foods”—red hot link sausages, watermelon, red velvet cake, cherry pie, hibiscus tea, red soda, and even Kool-Aid, among other foods. As Washington, DC herbalist Sunyatta Amen explains, “Juneteenth gatherings customarily feature red foods, which are used to symbolize resilience and joy… But no celebration would ever be complete without Red Drink.” Culinary historian Adrian Miller further elaborates on the significance of the color red as evoking “cultural memory of the bloodshed by our enslaved ancestors through the transatlantic slave trade.” As a child, I knew none of this. I just remember being surrounded by lots of good food, drinks, and much talking and rejoicing about Black people and our histories. Something else I did not know or even think about until over forty years later is, what comes after the red drink and the watermelon? What happens when all the jubilation and elation is over? What happens tomorrow and the days after that? What happened in 1865 after Black people learned they were free?
After the Morning After…
I think they ought to have given us old slaves some mules and land too, because everything that our white people had we made for them. — Andy McAdams
Wiggins explains that African Americans have many emancipation celebrations from January 1’s Jubilee Day to June’s 19th observance because there are many emancipations and days for celebrating freedom. He says, “For…Afro-Americans, their particular local independence observance—whose date varied from region to region—was ‘the biggest day in the United States’ and held more cultural significance for them than July 4th.” I grew up in this celebratory tradition, so I appreciate the commemorations, pageantry, and barbecues. But, more than anything else, I am intrigued by how those who lived through that time have recounted it because it is from them we learn about what happened after the announcements of freedom. Over the years, I have frequently explored the Works Progress Administration's (WPA) oral narratives with those who had been enslaved. On several occasions, I have delved into the accounts of those who lived in Texas and thus bore witness to the delayed news of emancipation. Many of these stories have been etched in my mind as I have prepared for conversations on the foods of Juneteenth. In these stories, we find out the harsh realities of the day after.
According to the Texas State History Association (TSHA) online entry for “Juneteenth,” when the words of freedom arrived it reached approximately 250,000 slaves in Texas, but it was gradual. Some African Americans learned immediately, for others it took as long as one year, and for many more it was another six to eight years. It’s not surprising that individual plantation owners—reluctant to release power and control over their labor force—delayed in sharing the news. So, when, for example, I participated with famed chef Carla Hall in Washington, DC’s Emancipation Day Celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the nation’s capital and was asked “What did Black people eat when they were freed,” I was somewhat taken aback and had to give it some real thought. Based on my many years of researching Black people, food, and enslavement, eating and celebrating was not necessarily the first thing people thought about when they heard the news. Or at least eating in the ways we think about and do today. I responded by explaining that what was most likely paramount in most people’s minds was, “What now?” Where will I go? How will I survive? Where are my children? My husband, my wife, my mamma, my daddy? I elaborated that some people most likely also passed out. Others may have run, taking whatever they could grab. Still, others wept and sobbed. And yes, some rejoiced and danced, celebrating at the news of long-delayed freedom finally realized. Perhaps the person who asked the question referred to celebrating in the coming days and weeks, but they did not elaborate. Regardless, I wanted to be clear that with the immediate awareness of liberty, there was more on the minds of the newly freed than eating and celebrating.
The reality was starker than we would like to believe and certainly starker than we typically discuss concerning Juneteenth. In remembering her life in bondage and freedom, Ms. Minerva Bendy, formerly enslaved in Woodville, Texas, said that she was initially upset by the notion of freedom. She recalled, “After us free dey turn us loose in de woods and dat de bad time, 'cause most us didn't know where to turn. I wasn't raise to do nothin' and I didn't know how. Dey didn't even give us a hoecake or a slice of bacon.” This is important for many reasons, not least because with widespread commemoration comes the perception that emancipation equated to freedom. But, it did not. Carolina Houston was in Nacogdoches, Texas during the Civil War. She remembers:
That night I heard more crying and taking on. Next day Master and Mistress were gone and left me here all by myself, if I could have found them I’d have left Hart’s [Hotel] next day and followed them but I was scared to death. Lawd honey, every one crying free, free, but I never did learn what they mean free. I was hired next to Mr. Montes, but one day an old friend came for me and I went with him (1803).
Ms. Parilee Daniels was born in Red River County, Texas in 1846. After emancipation, she stayed on at the plantation to work for twenty cents a day. She described conditions after the war as “them times was just hell on the negro race cause they was turned loose without any money, clothes, or anything to eat – no place to go, and the worst part of it we could not read or write or hold any kind of job except farm work.”
Many ex-slaves were prohibited from finding work or even moving about freely by the Klu Klux Klan. Mr. Andy McAdams describes this experience in his oral narrative:
Maser he called me there to his back door and told me that I was free and I could do just as I pleased, so I thanked him and went down to Huntsville, Texas. Negroes they were plum thick hollering and shouting cause they were free, but that merriment did not last long, as there was a white man came down through that bunch of people on a horse fast as he could go with rag tied over his face and rode by a negro woman, just leaned over in his saddle and cut that negro woman nearly half into and just kept riding, something like an hour passed and a covered wagon came by with two men with rags over their faces got out and picked her up and put her in that wagon and that was the last I’se ever heard of the negro woman or the white people either, and ever last one of us negroes that were left we went home and went in a hurry, cause we did not know how many more of us would be done just like that negro woman.
Mr. McAdams goes on to tell of hunger:
Then after we had been there at home 3 or 4 days without anything to eat we begin to wonder what we were going to do and begin to ask Maser because we were already getting hungry. Maser he told us he did not know what were going to do as he was not responsible for us any more but we finally persuaded him to give us work or something to eat, and he went to another place and got us a farm on the halves, so I went right on to Mr. Joe Larry and went to work for him that year and the next we farmed for him on the halves.
The ”halves” is another way of describing sharecropping. As Ms. Daniels, Mr. McAdams, and countless formerly enslaved people explain in their narratives—in and beyond Texas—their only option after freedom was to work the land of a plantation owner. Instead of paying rent, they paid with half (and in some cases all) of their harvest. This arrangement denied Black people the ability to build wealth. It also resulted in generational poverty because, in addition to paying months of rent and buying food, they also had to pay for seeds, farm supplies, and equipment with interest. Reconstruction is often considered the nadir for Black Americans for this and other reasons, including white violence. It was a period of terror, despair, and disenfranchisement. Some, like Ms. Betty Bormer of Johnson Station, Texas, were given a small plot of land or hay worth fifty dollars, and others may have saved some money from selling various foods and doing chores—five dollars, for example. Overwhelmingly, though, most were freed with nothing—no food, clothes, job, skills, and in some cases, no family and nowhere to go.
These realities make my blood boil. And they make my work studying African American food and food cultures very difficult. Because while I appreciate the celebrations of Black food and foodways—what we eat and cook, how, when, and where we eat and cook—it is hard for me to overlook how Black people are still denied the proverbial “forty acres and a mule” we should have been given for building this country and contributing to its lifeways for over 200 years. The actualities of Juneteenth—Black people being denied information that told them they were free—are also enough to make you seethe. But, then, to realize that we, as a race of people, are still trying to fight for our liberation in this country—and, more importantly, to tell generations of young people about our histories—is maddening, to say the least. And yet, it is why we need Juneteenth! Not only do we need the celebrations with red foods, but also the dancing, singing, prancing, and parades. And we also need honest conversations about how to fight the violence of white supremacy that centuries after emancipation still threatens our lives.
Though freedom has come, we have yet to be liberated. Bondage simply has a different face. Even if the “halves” does not exist as it did during Reconstruction, its economic cousin is alive and well. From low homeownership to discriminatory appraisal practices and gentrification, Black people in America often lack land wealth. Add to this the absence of clean running water, communities plagued by environmental contaminants, rampant generational poverty and financial illiteracy, mental health challenges, and daily onslaughts of state and community violence, and some might argue, as did Ms. Minerva Bendy, it be “de bad time.”
These are the reasons African American people must keep celebrating our culture, histories, and heritages. It is why we need to embrace the culinary rituals of eating ribs and chicken, barbecue, and potato salad; drinking red drinks and eating red sweets. We need to enjoy dancing, drinking, and other kinds of merriment that date back to when we were enslaved in this country. Many African Americans embrace this time of thanksgiving and commemoration for what it says about our past and what it means to our future. This is a time to celebrate, though our lives are nowhere near free. This is the time to celebrate, though the foods we enjoy are considered unhealthy. And this is the time to commemorate, though our chefs are often seen as incapable of cooking higher on the hog. Our celebrations must continue because the generations to come must know of Black resilience, innovation, ingenuity, and creativity in the continuous quest for their and our liberation and freedom.
No doubt, by now, Georgette has passed on. If age did not overtake her then most likely it was the challenges of trying to live liberated and free. Because even as I write this, we are only a year and a month away from a mass shooting that occurred further north on Jefferson Avenue at a Tops Friendly Markets grocery store. The white eighteen-year-old shooter plead guilty to state charges of murder, domestic terrorism, and hate crimes. And though he received eleven consecutive life sentences, so did the survivors of the killings, because not only do they have to live with the death of their loved ones, but also the awareness that it was prompted by hatred toward those of us with a different skin color. They now must live with haunted memories while trying to buy food—a basic necessity in this “sweet land of liberty” where freedom is supposed to ring.
My family left Buffalo, New York, many decades ago. We are gone, too, from Tops Market, where we shopped sometimes using S & H Green Stamps (which we licked for hours to paste in its accompanying book), the Scotties Steak House, where we got Friday night dinner, the dance studio where my sisters and I took lessons, and the community centers where observances of Juneteenth, Kwanzaa, and lessons on Black liberation expanded the knowledge taught in my home. Still, despite the physical absences of those places, the memories of them are indelible. They are as etched in my mind as the pictures in our family photo albums. They are as vivid as that moment in the 1970s when Georgette danced, reveled, and celebrated in her own way. She showed us what it can mean to live in your freedom, your way, even if the day after is a little worse than the day before.
This series was published with support from The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts.