As we are in the final stretch before the first Juneteenth Festival in Stone Mountain Village I couldn’t help but reflect on what the day means to me. I have celebrated this Holiday for as long as I can remember, my family has always recognized it and my hometown had an annual celebration. But, it has also always been personal to me. As a Black American, my ancestors were enslaved. Forced into bondage and survived the Middle Passage. My genealogy research shows that every branch of my tree leads to slavery. To know that I exist simply because my ancestors were strong enough to survive what was meant to break them is not lost on me.
I have done years of research on my ancestors and on my mother’s side have been able to pinpoint the plantation the Burton’s were enslaved on at the onset of the Civil War. White Plains in Cookeville, Tennessee.
This is my 3rd Great Grandfather Rueben Burton, born a slave around 1825. Married his wife Martha around 1845 and then was purchased by her master where he adopted the Burton surname. They had 16 children, twelve of which survived to adulthood. Of those 12, two son’s, George and John, left the plantation and joined the Union Army, fighting in the United States Colored Troops. Great Uncle John survived the war. Great Uncle George was not so fortunate. He was captured in battle in Dalton, GA in 1864. By some miracle he escaped his captors and found his way back to the Union Army, but he died from his injuries in Chattanooga in October 1865 at the age of 19. He is buried, along with hundreds of other Colored Troops in the National Cemetery in Chattanooga. I have had the honor of visiting his grave twice, once by myself and once with my mother. Both times were extremely emotional, the gratitude to this young man who gave his life for my freedom… overwhelming.
Having the opportunity to celebrate Juneteenth in the community I have adopted and love is a way for me to honor the enslaved who have for too long been forgotten and over looked in the general discussion of the Civil War. Much attention is given to confederate monuments and renaming buildings and streets, attention that is very much warranted. However, I choose to take at least this one day to pay tribute to our enslaved ancestors, those who survived the middle passage and the horrors of enslavement and those who did not survive the horrific trip across the Atlantic.
Did you know that in the 1860 slave schedule census (the last census before the Civil War) roughly 300 slaves are listed in the greater Stone Mountain area? It is time that they are remembered and honored.
I pay tribute to the thousands of young black men who risked it all to leave their masters plantation and fight for their freedom. And by fighting for their freedom, they fought for my freedom.
What does Juneteenth mean to you?