Professor Joe Goldblatt
Thousands of miles from where I live, a man was allegedly murdered by a police officer who placed his knee upon the man’s neck. The man’s final words, captured on video, were “I can’t breathe.”
This horrific scene reminded me of my youth when I was a child of eight years old in Dallas, Texas. Our home, like many in the south, employed a beloved maid named Jewel. Jewel was indeed a member of our family who provided love and discipline for my sister and I. Her sons, Leroy and James, often came to our home to play and when we were good or misbehaved, we were all praised or punished by Jewel, as she was our “other” mother.
Every year Dallas hosted the Great State Fair of Texas. My parents were delighted when Jewel offered to take my sister and I to Fair Park, the home of the Great State Fair of Texas, with her own sons as this would give mama and papa a much welcomed break.
However, I did not realize that the only time Jewel actually felt truly comfortable to go to Fair Park was not in October, when the State Fair was traditionally conducted, but rather on June nineteenth.
When Jewel took us to the fair she wore her traditonal white and crisply starched uniform. She also made sure that Leroy and James were also suitably smartly dressed for this special occassion.
I did not understand the significance of June nineteenth until I was much older because this day was not part of the Texas, American or World History that was taught in our public schools. However, in the aftermath of the protests, demonstrations and violence that has followed the death of George Floyd I became curious regarding its origins.
Juneteenth day originated in 1865 in Galveston, Texas when the Union General Gordon Granger announced that on the 19th of June all American slaves were officially free. President Lincoln had actually declared the federal emancipation of all slaves two years earlier, however, slavery was actually still legal in Delaware and Kentucky until December of 1865.
The earliest commemoration of Juneteenth day occurred mostly in black churches across the south and by 1920 it began to spread across the United States as an annual food festival commemorated by black citizens of the United States. In recent years there has been a strong movement to make Juneteenth a official national federal holiday in the United States.
As we entered the gates of the fair on June 19, 1960, my sister and I quickly noticed that although there were thousands of black children accompanied by their parents and or grandparents, we were the only white children in attendance. We also noticed that when we wished to have a drink of water we followed Jewel’s sons to the local public drinking fountain. Jewel immediately intercepted us and directed us to a different fountain that was labeled in large black letters “White Only”. Similarly, when I asked to use the bathroom, I noticed the sign that said “Colored Only” above the door to the public toilet and was quickly ushered to the door reserved for my race.
Many years after Jewel had taken us to fair park, I invited her to be my guest for a visit to the fair during its actual run in October. She was now in her seventies and needed a mobility scooter to be able to see the entire fair.
As I was working on one of the editions of my text book about special events I thought I would combine business with pleasure and asked Jewel if it would be alright for me to take a few minutes from our visit to interview the head of public relations at the State Fair of Texas about the history and future trajectory of this annual event that attracts millions of people to enjoy amusement, food, agriculture, industry and much more. Jewel agreed that this was a good idea and I invited her to accompany me to the interview.
We were warmly welcomed into the office of the woman in charge of public relations and I told her about my earliest experience of visiting fair park with Jewel on June 19, 1960. I also told her about my experiences with segregation and asked her how things had changed in the intervening years.
The distinguished looking woman suddenly stiffened her back, leaned back in her chair and said firmly “Fair Park was never segregated. We welcomed everyone.”
I noticed from the corner of my eye that Jewel had first lowered her eyes and now had begun to lower her head to look at her hands that were neatly folded in her lap.
A few minutes later when we were in the middle of the midway surrounded by the loud buzzing of mechanical rides, music and screaming children I sat down next to Jewel and asked for her view of the public relations woman’s earlier remarks about segregation.
Jewel looked me in the eye and said softly “Sure, we could come to Fair Park, but on only one day, and we could not buy anything, we could not sit down, and we could never use the toilets.”
I later researched this history and discovered this description from the Bullock Museum in Dallas.
“In 1953, the fair announced that African Americans could attend the fair on any day, but could only fully participate in the fair’s enjoyments on Negro Achievement Day. Juanita Craft, NAACP Youth Council advisor for the Dallas branch, spearheaded a movement to end discrimination at the fair so that any person of any race could participate on any day they chose. Craft and members of the Youth Council decided to stage a boycott of the fair to draw attention to discriminatory practices. Teenagers, equipped with signs proclaiming “TODAY IS NEGRO APPEASEMENT DAY AT THE FAIR,” picketed the parade that began at the local black high school. Those kids went to the starting point at Lincoln High School and boarded the floats right along with the queens and everybody else and rode down the streets saying, ‘Stay out. Don’t sell your pride for a segregated ride.’ The kids were on top of people’s houses along the route of the parade with megaphones telling about the segregated policy out there and to stay out.”
I greatly regret now that I did not include the history of the State Fair of Texas in my textbook at that time. However, following the tragic death of George Floyd and further supported by the recent statement by the first Lesbian and African American female Mayor of Chicago, Illinois, the honourable Lori Lightfoot, I shall never be silent again. Anytime I see or hear about discrimination, I shall remember what Mayor Lightfoot said so eloquently to her alderman colleagues following the death of George Floyd.
“I will no longer be silent. I shall stand up when I see or hear discrimination. Please choose your words carefully in this body. We are leaders. People look to us. They will take our word seriously, as they should, and I will just say be careful in how you express yourself,” Lightfoot said. “Of course ask questions, that’s what a deliberative body does, but do it in a way that doesn’t demonize or victimize anyone else. Remember, our children are watching.”
Recently, I began, to my shame, to notice everyday the subtle ways that people of colour are often overlooked in public and private life. For example, when I view these plasters (band aids) in my medicine cabinet I wonder if their skin tone colour is acceptable to people of colour?
My research shows that there are indeed niche products available for people of colour, however, none of the major companies including Band Aid seemingly recognised that people of colour, other than white, use their products. However, I also noted that on 12 June 2020, following the death of George Floyd that Band Aid announced that it shall now, for the first time since its inception 100 years ago, provide a wider range of products to represent different skin tones.
When I recently was concluding one of my early morning walks, I visited a four hundred year old home that once hosted King James I and VI. As I walked out of the entry way of Riddles Court upon Edinburgh’s the Royal Mile, I noticed that upon one of the many boarded up retail stores the name George Floyd had been spray painted. I suddenly stopped in my tracks and wondered if the elimination of racism in society would be as difficult as the elmination of hostilities in the middle east because it seems to continually spread, grow and ultimately kill just as the Corona Virus has thus far succeeded in doing throughout the world.
Then I thought, perhaps one way to help eliminate racism in our society is to first explore its sources and then fully use our democratic legal system as well as call upon the human heart in all its mystery and ultimate potential for love and understanding to eradicate it.
This year, the Scottish Government shall seek to prohibit hate crimes, for the first time in its long history. The rise in reported cases of islamophobia, antsemetism, homophobia and other hate crime activities has promoted the urgency of establishing this legislation. Therefore, we are seeking to find a legislative or legal remedy to this ancient disease.
However, much more is needed beyond legislation. That is why I shall no longer be silent. I shall stand up and speak out to demonstrate the capacity of my heart to help mend the errors of the past and forge a better future for our children. After all, as the Mayor of Chicago reminded me and you, our children are watching. And their children will be watching as well as many future generations to come. This is why for me, now and going forward , every day shall be Juneteenth day.