Bob Hayden: Photo by Ben Scott

A reminder of our history

By Eleni Collins - June 22, 2006

On June 19, 1865, African Americans in Texas learned that they were not slaves anymore, and had not been for over three months. It took this long for word to travel to Texas after the Civil War ended, and "Juneteenth" has been a day of celebration ever since.

In 1980, 115 years later, Juneteenth became a legal state holiday for Texans. This year, the Vineyard celebration was at the Oak Bluffs school auditorium last Saturday. Bob Hayden, author of the recent book "African Americans on Martha's Vineyard: A History of People, Places and Events," began the celebratory event by giving an overview of the holiday. "Celebrating Juneteenth helps us to move beyond traditional black history month," Mr. Hayden said in his speech. "African American history is for all people, all purposes, all seasons."

Second on the day's agenda was a musical performance of African American slave spirituals by Jim Thomas and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chorus. Mr. Thomas has spent years researching spirituals, which were a second language for slaves. Slaves were not allowed to talk while they were working on the plantations, so they invented their own songs with hidden messages to communicate. "Ironically, Negro spirituals were born in the white church," said Mr. Thomas. Almost always there were two meanings for a spiritual, the most obvious being religious. Mr. Thomas has dissected the spirituals for their hidden meanings, and now sings with and directs the NAACP chorus.

NAACP choir: Photo by Ben Scott
Jim Thomas, left, who has performed as a soloist at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., directs the NAACP choir.

Since these songs were not originally sung as concert arrangements but used for means of ordinary conversation, the choir is not made up of expert singers. "The choir is one month old," Mr. Thomas said before the start of their first song. "It is composed of persons interested in authentic spirituals. Some were trained to sing and some were told since babies that they should not," he said with a laugh.

The 17-person choir sang six songs, including one whose hidden meaning is still a mystery. "My Soul Has Been Anchored in the Lord" was sung with soloist Georgia Franklin, and it is possibly one of the few that was purely religious, along with "Go Tell it on the Mountain."

In accordance with the holiday, Elaine Weintraub, co-founder of the Martha's Vineyard African American Heritage Trail and Island high school history teacher, spoke of her involvement with African American history of Martha's Vineyard. Her first job here was in 1986 in the Oak Bluffs School, where she was responsible for the first grade "academic failures." She found 15 out of 18 of her new students were African American. "I wondered how you got to be an academic failure in first grade," she joked.

It was on a historical field trip to the Oak Bluffs campgrounds with her class when she was introduced to the lack of African American history on the Vineyard. "One student asked another teacher 'Where were the black people?' and the teacher responded, 'They only came on vacation,'" recalled Ms. Weintraub.

This question inspired her to ask more about their history, and she soon discovered a black whaling captain as well as evidence of slavery here. Currently, Ms. Weintraub incorporates her sophomore history students with the trail, and the class spends an entire day touring the sites as well as maintaining them.

Juneteenth continued with a speech by Abigail McGrath, screenwriter, about what the holiday meant to her. The event concluded with a short film about Dean K. Denniston Sr., the son of the minister who established the first African American church on the Island. Linsey Lee made the film, "A Person of Color."

By quoting one of his favorite African American heroes, Asa Philip Randolph, Mr. Hayden ended his speech with a strong statement. "Freedom is never a final act, but a continuing process."