FORT LAUDERDALE — Legend has it that for two and a half years, slaves in the South did not know that they were free. But contrary to popular belief, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 brought partial freedom. While it freed blacks in the Union, it had no immediate effect on slaves in the Confederate-controlled areas of the country.
Shortly after the Union seized Texas, Union Major General Gordon Granger came to Galveston on June 19, 1865, with an order of freedom for all slaves. Upon the reading of General Order No. 3, the former slaves celebrated and welcomed their freedom. A year later, the celebrations continued as African-Americans declared June 19 as America’s second Independence Day.
To commemorate the oldest African-American observance and pay tribute to the slaves’ fight for independence in the African Diaspora, the Broward County School Board will launch an exhibit titled, Juneteenth & the Quest for Independence in the Americas at the Old Dillard Museum in Fort Lauderdale.
“What we’re doing is looking at it in a broader sense. Juneteenth is independence for blacks in the United States, but what we are looking at is the other independence stories because most people don’t know the stories of the other Africans in the Americas,” said the museum’s curator, Derek Davis.
Slated to open June 19, organizers of the event aspire to raise public awareness of the celebration. An essay by Florida International University’s African New World Studies professor, Alexandra Diallo, details the quest for independence in the Americas. Organizers of the event will give copies of the essay to attendees.
The exhibit also aims to promote the new Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora, set to be published in July, which provides detailed information on the history of the African Diaspora and the struggle for all forms of emancipation, including decolonization.
On display at the Old Dillard Museum will be the work of eight local artists, some of whom have migrated from countries such as Jamaica, the Bahamas and Haiti.
According to Davis, the artists’ works are not indicative of a specific time period. Each of the renowned contemporary artists: Addonis Parker, Wanda Paulette, Robert Sylvain, Noah Jones, Charles Mills, Charles Humes, Patrick Copellin and Winsome Bolt, were limitless in their individual interpretation of emancipation.
Haitian artist Robert Sylvain’s paintings address the unrelenting issues that continue to plague the first black-controlled country in the Western Hemisphere.
His “Birth of a Nation” depicts the American flag. The red stripes symbolize prison bars, and the African continent seen in the stars signifies the contributions blacks have made to the United States in the form of free labor, Sylvain said.
“I also painted women because women are the protectors of the race. They produce angels—the spirit we still find today because blacks want to be participants in this country. They never became enemies even though the past was hard to accept. They want to be citizens. They want this to be their country,” Sylvain said of his painting.
Social Security pays tribute to the Haitians who drowned in 2002 after their boat sank while attempting to come to the U.S. The stars in the U.S. flag have bullet holes which represent the Civil War and the many other fights for freedom. One hand cries out for help as a woman sinks, and the other hand points the direction to freedom, Sylvain explained.
“Freedom is not given. It has to be taken. It has to be fought for. What we are fighting for is social freedom, hence the social security number. Haitians are coming here looking for social and economical freedom,” Sylvain said.
It was the Haitian revolution that served as the turning point for emancipation in the Western Hemisphere. After the revolution began in 1791 and ended with Haiti’s independence from France in 1804, slave owners became fearful as thousands of slaves in the Americas launched numerous revolts.
“It’s this subject that makes me proud, being black and being Haitian, because I can claim it as my prize since the declaration of that freedom started in a small island that’s mine. This exhibit is another sign of recognition to all Haitians and all blacks,” said Sylvain.
Though several states in the U.S. abolished slavery toward the end of the 18th century, it wasn’t until the Union army seized hold of Texas, the stronghold in the South, and brought it back into the Union, as well as the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 18, 1865, that slavery was abolished entirely in the U.S.
For Wanda Paulette, emancipation meant women’s rights. Her work, “Coretta Scott: Portrait of Courage” depicts the late wife of Dr. Martin Luther King in a pensive mood as she reflects on the past struggles. The piece also symbolizes her courageous continuum of Dr. King’s efforts, said Paulette, a founding member of The Inner City Renaissance Artists Group.
“Here in the U.S., we have continued with efforts to realize freedom, and Juneteenth is a time to recall what freedom actually means,” she said.
Photo by Elgin Jones/SFT STAFF. Robert Sylvain discusses his painting, “Birth of a Nation,” at the Old Dillard Museum in Fort Lauderdale.
IF YOU GO:
What: Juneteenth & the Quest for Independence in the Americas exhibit
Where: Old Dillard Museum, 1009 NW 4th Street, Fort Lauderdale
When: June 19 to July 31. Opening reception at 6: 30 p.m. June 19. Music by Lauderhill Steel Ensemble. Refreshments will be served at 6 p.m.
Contact: For more information visit www.broward.k12.fl.us/olddillardmuseum or call 754-322-8828.