An Old Fashioned Juneteenth

As every American is now obliged to honor “Juneteenth” as a national holiday, I have made it my observance to annually write a post on the history of this secular feast.  As I have explained before (here and here), “Juneteenth” was much more commonly known as Emancipation Day, and it was historically celebrated by Texas blacks much like the Fourth of July.  I have this year copied the newspaper report of the Emancipation Day celebration in Brenham, seat of Washington County, Texas, in 1884.  This was nineteen years after emancipation and the celebration was typical of that time.  I have inserted what I hope are elucidating remarks.

“Thursday morning, the 19th inst., was the anniversary of the emancipation of the colored race from slavery, and was duly ushered in by the firing of anvils at daylight.”[1]

An “anvil” was a volley of gunfire.  I have found no discussion of the word, but the usage was clearly Southern and my guess is that “anvil” was a corruption of the word enfilade.

“A very large number of colored people from all parts of the country were in town.”

The word country properly means the surroundings or environs of a town.  The word comes from the Latin terra contra, or land outside of and surrounding a town.   In 1888, Washington County was one of the blackest counties in Texas, the black portion about forty percent, and most blacks lived in the country.

“About eleven o’clock the procession arrived from Camptown, headed by the Brenham colored band, followed by the colored Odd Fellows lodge in full regalia.”

Camptown was the largest black neighborhood in the town of Brenham.  It was located on the eastern outskirts where roads from the old plantation districts entered town.  It was most likely named for the Camptown of Stephen Foster’s minstrel song “Camptown Races,” which was published in 1850 and enjoyed a great vogue through the Civil War.  Foster took the name Camptown from a settlement near his boyhood home in Bradford County, Pennsylvania.[2] Camptown, Pennsylvania, was named for Job Camp, a Connecticut native who settled in Bradford County in 1792.[3]  This original Camptown had few if any blacks, but Foster’s song made Camptown a colloquial name for a black settlement.

“Miss R. B. May, Goddess of Liberty and maids of honor in carriage.”

The Goddess of Liberty was an invention of the eighteenth-century, most notably of the Scottish poet James Thompson, who made her the heroine of a long poem called Liberty in 1734.  When the French revolutionaries took possession of Notre Dame cathedral and converted it into a Temple of Philosophy, they employed a winsome actress to play the Goddess of Liberty.  A second actress played the Goddess of Reason, and the two together incarnated the spirit of the new, democratic, age.  Parades in the new American democracy often featured a Goddess of Liberty, since this allowed a winsome maiden to pass before the public in a fetching and sleeveless robe.  Blacks readily adopted the figure for their Emancipation Day parades.   At the 1890 Emancipation Day parade in Houston, for example, the Goddess of Liberty was dragged from her high throne when her float passed under a low telephone wire.[4]

The Goddess of Liberty in the 1884 Brenham parade was actually Miss Julia Lewis, not Miss R. B. May, since Miss May was indisposed by a sudden illness.[5]  Miss May was evidently a popular girl, since the Goddess of Liberty was, naturally, an elective office.  Her appointed substitute, Miss Lewis, was apparently not so popular, since she ran third in the 1885 race for Brenham Goddess of Liberty.[6]

“Felix Whittakers decorate float—a complete blacksmith shop in full working order, with the mottos ‘We live by honest toil’ and ‘Patronize home industries.’  The float was highly creditable to Felix.  There were quite a number of vehicles in the procession.  When the fair grounds were reached the usual speeches and responses were made.”

The first speech, elsewhere described as “lengthy,” was by the black Methodist preacher J. R. Bryan.  Reverend Bryan was also a power in the local Republican party and a member of what Democrats called “the Courthouse Ring.”  Miss Susannah Hubert read “a well prepared and instructive essay on the result of emancipation.”  Finally, W.H. Blount delivered an address that dwelt, some felt tactlessly, on his pivotal role at the recent Republican Nation Convention in Chicago.[7]  Blount was black and the serving County Commissioner from precinct 1, in what was called the “black belt,” at the eastern end of Washington County.  He had risen through the Republican political machine that had controlled Washington County government since the Civil War.

“Mr. W. H. Blount, county commissioner, was orator of the day, and made an excellent address giving the colored people plenty of good advice.  During Blount’s speech Prof. Robinson, a school teacher, made some remark derogatory to the character of the colored women, when a colored man resented the remark and Robinson, who was ‘heeled’ proposed to maintain his position by drawing his pet pocket pistol.”

A. H. Robinson was black and working as Principal of the colored school in Camptown. In the next day’s paper, Robinson published a “card” denying he had impugned the character of colored women and asserting that he had merely heckled Blount for boasting that he, Blount, had been the big banana at the Republican National Convention in Chicago.[8]   Blount was vain and apparently nettled by reports that he had been overshadowed at the Convention by N.W. Cuny, another black Republican from Galveston.[9]

Robinson was himself rather vain, and so was fired as Principal by the School Board in October.[10]  It seems the Superintendent had found fault with some figures submitted by Robinson, and Robinson, piqued, had permitted the students in the colored school to run wild.[11]

“The colored men soon made it so oppressively hot on the grounds that he [Robinson] deemed it expedient to withdraw as quickly as possible.  Beyond this nothing occurred to mar the pleasure of the occasion.  The festivities concluded with a grand ball on the platform at night . . . . It must be said to the credit of the colored people that as a rule, they were very orderly and well behaved and during the day there was only three arrests made.”

It was necessary to emend the last commendation one day later.

“It appears that the Emancipation celebration was not quite as orderly as it might have been.  During Thursday night there was several fights and knock downs.”[12]

One of those “knock downs” was the work of John Mason, a black youth who assaulted W. B. Pressly, and a few weeks later shot and killed another black youth named Albert Tarver.[13]  Both Mason and Tarver were eighteen years old.[14] The testimony of half a dozen black witnesses “was rather conflicting, but the drift of it was that the shooting was accidental.”[15]  Mason was eventually charged with murder, but his mixed jury was hung and a mistrial was declared.[16]

[1]) Brenham Daily Banner (June 20, 1884), p. 3.

[2]) Evelyn Foster Morneweck, Chronicles of Stephen Foster’s Family (Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press, 1944), pp. 376, 486.

[3]) H.C. Bradsby, History of Bradford County, Pennsylvania, With Biographical Sketches (Chicago: S.B. Nelson, 1891),  p 464, 574.

[4]) Fort Worth Daily Gazette (June 20, 1890), p. 1.

[5]) Brenham Daily Banner (June 22, 1884), p. 3.

[6]) Brenham Daily Banner (June 12, 1885), p. 3.

[7]) Brenham Daily Banner (June 22, 1884), p. 3.

[8]) Brenham Daily Banner (June 21, 1884), p. 3.

[9]) Galveston Daily News (June 27, 1884), p. 6.

[10]) Brenham Daily Banner (Oct. 30, 1884), p. 3.

[11]) Brenham Daily Banner (Dec. 5, 1884), p. 1.

[12]) Brenham Daily Banner (June 21, 1884), p. 3.

[13]) Brenham Daily Banner (Aug. 6, 1884), p. 3.

[14]) Brenham Daily Banner (July 29, 1884), p. 3.

[15] Brenham Daily Banner (July 30, 1884), p. 3.

[16] Brenham Daily Banner (April 4, 1885), p. 3.

7 thoughts on “An Old Fashioned Juneteenth

  1. An “anvil” was a volley of gunfire. I have found no discussion of the word, but the usage was clearly Southern and my guess is that “anvil” was a corruption of the word enfilade.

    Here is how we Southrons fire an anvil:

    The word country properly means the surroundings or environs of a town.

    Yeah. Only city folk and carpetbaggers would read that line and think it meant any geographical area larger than that you state in context.

    My research shows that any time (and anywhere) blacks make up 35%-40% of the demographic, violent criminality, and one’s chances of becoming a victim of violent criminality, goes through the roof. However, country blacks tend to be less violence prone than their city-dwelling counterparts. There are a fair number of country blacks who live within a few short miles of me, and they tend to be pretty decent people that I have no trouble at all getting along with. Not sure they’d be as decent were they to pile themselves on top of one another in a city even as small as 30,000, but anyway.

    • In fairness, it must be mentioned that piling Whites (or people of any demographic description) higgledy-piggledy atop one another in these horrid, slack, scaly, dilapidated, smoggy, noisy, cheek-by-jowl inhuman oppressive monstrosities of the twisted bones of the Earth we consider conurbations tends to increase their criminality.

      But I take your point, and echo it myself.

      • Agreed. Whites aren’t exempted (simply by virtue of their whiteness) from higher criminality rates when they pile themselves on top of one another in cities. Nonetheless, 13/50 is real, and should not be ignored, or, “swept under the rug.”

    • Country life makes every sort of person somewhat saner – and more virtuous – than city life. The country forces sanity and virtue on a man, in a way that the city does not.

      Anyone who has used a chainsaw knows this. There is no arguing with a chainsaw.

      • I recently arrived at the belief that the country is sane and virtuous because the law does not (and cannot) have a strong physical presence. The old saying that an armed population is a polite population is true in the countryside. Because law enforcement has a stronger physical presence in cities, there’s a kind of moral hazard–any given dispute can be resolved by law enforcement, I don’t have to put any effort into being nice or kind to my fellow man.

        This is because politeness is the true law of the land. Laws are codifications of politeness by creating official punishments for things everyone agrees are a crime, or creates an official doctrine for things everyone agrees everyone should do. That’s also why when people are alarmed at some new law, it’s a sign that the culture war is already lost. Law always follows the cultural mores of a people, law cannot lead them.

        Cities are not without their virtues. Cities are the hearts of civilization–the first cities marked the first human civilizations, but their virtues are altogether different than the virtues of the country. Cities offer us the virtues of neighborliness and community; the country offers us the virtues of self reliance and asceticism. The two exist in tension and equilibrium.

      • Scoot:

        The interesting thing is that because city folk can’t (or, won’t) settle their differences without police, they think this means country folk can’t either. Your comments brought to mind an incident that happened in 2009 in my hometown. I googled it in hopes I could find the old ABC coverage of the (non)event, and was pleasantly surprised learn the story is so easy to pull up. And, man, what a doozy of a story it is!, lemme tell ya. Everything in it is either a bald-faced lie, or a huge exaggeration. My little town doesn’t need police to keep order – people there are overwhelmingly self-governing; they have a little police force for revenue raising purposes and that is all. The cops in question (they were all out-of-towners) were in fact harassing that woman who’d lost her daughers in the house fire because they *thought* she started the fire while cooking crack, which was not the case at all. Her dryer caught the house on fire; it was an old house, so it was like a tenderbox. But anyway, as I said, there is hardly a word of truth in the story. Here is the link:

      • @Scoot

        Cities nowadays unfortunately are monstrosities of ugliness in architecture and socially too. And they subsequently provide bad models for buildings even in scenic places making them ugly when urbanization occurs.


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