This week I write to you from Juneteenth Sankofa Days Festival in Buffalo, New York. The city is also famous for Niagara Falls which few may know was the last stop on the underground-railroad, a route of secret trails and safe houses in the USA for enslaved African descendants headed to free states, Canada and Nova Scotia. Side note,maps of these routes were braided into women’s hair to help ensure safe path. As I took questions on the history of resilience of Ethiopians, it was obvious that though the proud narrative of the non-colonization of Ethiopia is touted at home, this profound history continues to inspire millions of Africans here and there in the 21st century. African Americans wear the win of Ethiopia over Italy as a badge of honor and hope.
This is reflected in Juneteenth, which marked the communication of the end of slavery. According to juneteenth.com, “Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – which had become official January 1, 1863.”
Due to the limited number of union soldiers the Proclamation was barely enforced. Varying versions on the over two year delay in delivering the order have taken on lives of their own from the messenger murdered on his way to Texas with the news to the enslavers refusing to deliver the order to keep the free labor force on the plantations while allowing for slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest in the South. Bottom line, the enslaved were free and the great day in June 1865, known as Juneteenth, is celebrated throughout the USA by pockets of Black communities. The Juneteenth Festival of Buffalo is filled with music, art, literature and a colorful showing of African wares. A tour of the Niagara Falls with the “dramatic and heart-rending stories of the people who risked their lives for freedom, as well as the lasting heritage of their ancestors, can now be experienced at Freedom Crossing… which tells the story of the Underground Railroad in Buffalo Niagara through historic photographs, artifacts, stories, audio stations, and art” according to the niagarafallsundergroundrarilroad.org.
Juneteenth of Buffalo, Inc. is exclusively for charitable and educational purposes and is run by volunteers committed to preserving and promoting a wide range of African American heritage through educational and cultural activities beneficial to the entire community. After my presentation at the Frank E. Merriweather Library, I learnt that the namesake was the publisher of the Buffalo Criterion, the oldest African American weekly newspaper in upstate New York. Further to my pleasant surprise, my partner Merid Tafesse and I were led to photos of Ethiopian Kings, proudly displayed in the library, emphasizing Emperor Menelik II. We were then told of the history of the Ethiopian World Federation in Buffalo during the first half of the 1900’s. Wow! I asked myself, how could we have been so connected back in the days with no internet and rare access to phone yet today with internet and nothing but access we are disconnected? What can and should we do to strengthen each other at home and abroad? What can we do to promote more cultural events that help us find our way home to the safe places of our culture and African identity. So as the USA celebrates Juneteenth and Black Music Month I leave you with a few lines to ponder from a couple of songs on my playlist, the first by Lil Wayne followed by John Legend and the Roots rendition of Humanity by Prince Lincoln and the Royal Rasses:
God Bless Amerika
Everybody wanna tell me what I need
You can play a role in my life but not the lead
If there’s food for thought then I’m guilty of greed
Mama said take what you want, I took heed yea
What happened to the love
That they are all talking about?
It’s nothing but useless words
Coming from out of their mouths
Talking ’bout love the way it should be
We gotta open our eyes and we will see
About love the way it should be
We gotta make up our minds and we’ll advance humanity
Humanity, humanity, humanity.
Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.