By Joseph-Emery Kouaho // June 18, 2021
It’s Not Freedom Without Education
Juneteenth and the Southern Education Foundation
Juneteenth, otherwise known as the day of strawberry soda sipping, red velvet cake baking, mac and cheese tasting (only grandma’s mac, of course), is a day of jubilee for American descendants of slavery near and far. On this day, June 19, 1865, the remaining 250,000 enslaved Black Americans held captive in Texas were freed. Although Abraham Lincoln declared that all enslaved Black Americans within the rebellious states were to be released from bondage in the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, the first day of Jubilee came nearly two-and-a-half-years later. Enslaved Black people in Texas were not able to celebrate their release from bondage until mid-1865 because their captors, along with Texas Confederate soldiers, were committed to the confederacy even after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox in April of 1865. Therefore, it was not until Union Army Major General Gordon Granger issued General Orders No. 3 on the footsteps of Ashton Villa in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, that the remaining enslaved Americans in Texas were released from bondage. His decree at the last Confederate stronghold indicated the full compliance of the Emancipation Proclamation and ensured that all enslaved Black persons in the Confederate states would be freed. This meant that legal freedom had finally rung for all across the country. Since then, each year on June 19th – remixed and dubbed “Juneteenth” by some creative and enterprising ancestors – has been a day in which all American descendants of slavery come together to eat all of Grandma’s mac and swagg’ surf their heart out.
On the Heels of Freedom: SEF’s Contributions to the Movement
“Righteousness exalts a nation. Hate just makes people miserable.”
– Fannie Lou Hamer
I would imagine that the newly emancipated Black Americans’ triumphant cheers and jubilant moods must have quickly turned somber when they realized that the United States government did not have measures in place to ease their transition into American citizenship. During the Reconstruction, immediately following the Civil War, federal and state policies aimed at protecting and advancing the citizenship rights of Black Americans were met with resistance, especially from embittered former Confederate States. Those Confederate States staunchly opposed voting and educational rights for their new Black American citizens. As a result, the efforts to educate America’s 4 million African Americans were largely led by philanthropists.
Among the first to take on that responsibility was George Peabody, a successful Massachusetts financier. In 1867, he established The Peabody Fund with an initial investment of $1 million dollars. The Peabody Fund’s mission was to help create a public education system in the South and to support the preparation of teachers who would educate low-income Southerners and newly emancipated Black Americans. The Peabody Fund would later be consolidated with the Slater, Jeanes, and Randolph Funds to form the Southern Education Foundation whose mission continues to be advancing racial equity and improving educational opportunities for low-income communities and students of color in the South.
The Southern Education Foundation was born out of the revolutionary goal to educate a people who had once been denied the right to read and write, recognizing that education is necessary to realize opportunity and success. To borrow from Malcolm X, education is and has always been the passport to a brighter future, and that is a lesson that all Black Americans understood very well, even in their time of legally enforced captivity. Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles like Black codes, Jim Crow policies, the Ku Klux Klan, and racism, the Peabody Fund, the Slater Fund, the Jeanes Fund, the Randolph Fund, and countless other philanthropies and dedicated educators and activists created access to education and opportunity for Black Americans. Although achieving educational equity continues to be a daily struggle, the path to education for poor African Americans living in the South would have been more difficult without the work of the Southern Education Foundation.
What Juneteenth Means to Me
“Nowhere you can go is more peaceful – more free of interruptions than your own soul.”
– Marcus Aurelius
I like to call myself an adopted native son. As a Cote D’Ivoire born and now naturalized American citizen who spent half of his life living in Abidjan, Côte D’Ivoire, I had to educate myself about the lives, and relearn the spirits of my long-lost family members who were stolen from the continent centuries ago. This learning curve was not easy for a nine-year old, English learner whose family settled in Charlotte, North Carolina – not only did I have to learn and form a new American identity, I had to do this in the South.
As I read the biographies of key Black historical figures, eagerly watched hours upon hours of YouTube documentaries on major Black history events, and most importantly learned from my peers by immersing myself in the Black community, I began to develop what I can now understand to be Black Pride. Juneteenth to me is a recognition that, no matter the negative circumstances that the powers that be have bestowed upon us in centuries past and in contemporary times, we have to “keep on keepin’ on.” Just as it was in 1865, the United States government still does not have the proper measures in place to make it easy for us to enjoy the benefits that come with full American citizenship.
The yearly Juneteenth celebrations that happen across the nation are an appreciation of the melange of the culture, foods, and customs that Black folks were able to retain from the ancestral lands with those that were crafted on American soil, because no matter where we are in the diaspora, we are all rooted back to the continent. As I reflect on what Juneteenth means to me, I look forward to continuing the conversation with those of you who were invited to the cookout.
Joseph-Emery Kouaho is a doctoral student in the Educational Administration Policy program at the University of Georgia and a 2021 Southern Education Leadership Initiative Fellow.