Thursday, June 13th, 2013...12:08 pm
Juneteenth lives on with portrayals at cemetery
June 19, celebrated as Juneteenth in many parts of this country, will mark the 149th anniversary of Gen. Gordon Granger’s march into Galveston, Texas, freeing what is considered the last group of slaves in America.
Other slaves had been freed at various times beginning with the Emancipation Proclamation which set Jan. 1, 1863, as the deadline for slaves in Confederate states to get their first taste of freedom.
If it is left up to Yvonne Giles, that anniversary will be celebrated every year in African Cemetery No. 2, at the gravesites of dozens of men who served in the military during the Civil War.
“Had it not been for these men who sacrificed their lives, there would be no Juneteenth and none of us would be free,” said Giles, director of the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum and member of the cemetery board.
This year, the 11th for the celebration, five youth from Main Street Baptist Church will portray the founding pastor of the church, the Rev. Frederick Braxton, and his wife, two of their sons, and a long-time church member who served as deacon, trustee and interim pastor in the early 1900s. All of them are buried in the cemetery at 419 East Seventh Street, as are 62 known Civil War veterans.
Delphine Ridgeway, who is coordinating this event and who helped research the history at Main Street Baptist Church, said that in the presentation, Braxton, portrayed by Matthew Moore, 18, recounts how he organized the Independent Baptist Church after breaking away from the First African Church in 1862. That church later was re-named Main Street. Elisabeth White, 15, portrays Braxton’s wife, Kesiah.
Landon Love, 17, and his brother Langston Love, 14, will portray Cpl. Charles Braxton and Pvt. Merritt Braxton, the minister’s sons, who enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troop 116th Infantry Regiment at Camp Nelson in 1864.
In 1865, the brothers participated in the fall of Petersburg, Va., on April 2; the pursuit of Gen. Robert E. Lee April 3-9; and the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9.
Leander Ridgeway, Jr., 15, portrays the Rev. Richard C. Speed, the interim pastor, who was a member of the church until 1952.
The Rev. Braxton’s gravesite is unknown, but the church put a memorial headstone near the grave of his son in the cemetery last summer.
Five tents will be set up at key monuments in the cemetery Saturday and the history of some of the veterans will be told by cemetery board members, Giles said. Visitors will receive a stamp at each tent and when they have collected all five, they will be treated to a camp-style meal of water and hardtack, she said, laughing. Hardtack is a very hard biscuit made of flour and water, and salt if you were lucky.
I asked her if that is supposed to be the big draw?
She laughed harder.
“That was what they carried with them in case the chuck wagon could not reach them,” Giles said. “This is the adventure of discovery. You can find out how hard they had to live, walking for miles and they had to eat cold food.”
Giles added there would more items on the menu than hardtack for those of us in the 21st Century.
“Highlighting the Spirit of Freedom” starts at 10:30 a.m. June 15.
Several of the veterans in the cemetery have interesting stories. For example, Spencer Peterson Young, a native of Jessamine County, enlisted in the 122nd Infantry, and later became an Ohio minister before being named pastor at First Baptist Church in 1881. He conducted the 10th wedding anniversary ceremony for Isaac and Lucy Murphy in 1893 and presiding at his funeral in 1896.
Another, Howard Miller, was 18 when he joined the 5th Cavalry and was soon promoted to sergeant because he could read. His regiment participated in the Stoneman’s Raid at Saltville, Va.
And, then there is George T. Prosser, a private in the 54th Massachusetts Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment, composed of freed men. He was a prisoner of war for 19 months, captured at the failed Union assault at Fort Wagner, S.C., on which the movie Glory was based. He was freed in a prisoner exchange near the end of the war.
That is a part of history that has been forgotten, like Juneteenth, Ridgeway said.
“It is history and no one knows about it,” she said. “And folks don’t know about Juneteenth. I’ve been to a couple of ceremonies at Camp Nelson and they have been packed with people of all colors and all kinds.
“People need to be made aware of the significance of Juneteenth, as well,” she said.
IF YOU GO
Highlighting the Spirit of
Freedom, a Juneteenth
When: 10:30 a.m.- noon, June 15.
Where: African Cemetery No. 2, 419 East Seventh St., Lexington