Juneteenth event recognizes country’s difficult history, celebrates freedom

Charity McAllister was 18 years old “when the Yankees came” and told her and her family of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. She had been a slave her entire life until that day — raised in Lillington and eventually sold off to a man in Raleigh, along with her mother. 

In an interview for the “Slave Narratives” history project roughly 70 years later, McAllister shared her memories of life as a slave in Harnett County. Her story is difficult to hear. 

“I was whipped with horse hair whips … they put a stick under our legs and tied our hands to the stick, and we could do nothing but turn and twist,” she recalled. “They would sure work on your back end. Every time you turned, they would hit it. I was whipped that way and scarred up.” 

She slept on mattresses made of old potato sacks. Her clothes were ragged. She wasn’t allowed to pray or have a holiday.

“No books or schools of any kind. I cannot read and write. No sir, I wish I could read and write.”

Dr. Catherine Lewis Wente

McAllister’s account was one of three displays featuring recorded interviews of former slaves who lived in Harnett County set up for public viewing at Campbell University’s first Juneteenth celebration Monday, an event recognizing the anniversary (June 19, 1865) of the day slaves in Galveston, Texas learned of their freedom nearly two and a half years after Lincoln’s decree. 

After 156 years of recognizing the day across the country, the U.S. officially made Juneteenth a federal holiday in 2021, becoming the country’s first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was declared in 1986. 

In addition to the displays, a table of history books that can be found in Wiggins Memorial Library and opportunities for visitors to contribute hand-written notes about Juneteenth, equality and freedom, Monday’s event included five speakers, beginning with Dr. Catherine Lewis Wente, director of integrated pharmacotherapy and clinical assistant professor for the College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences at Campbell. In her address, Wente shared a few verses from a 1936 poem by Langston Hughes, “Let America be America Again.” 

O, let America be America again
The land that never has been yet
And yet must be — the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine — the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME

Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!

Jaylen Gardener

Jaylen Gardener, a junior kinesiology major and head of the Black Student Association on campus, talked about what Juneteenth meant to him.

“To me, it’s a day of reflection,” he said. “It makes me think of the strength and resilience of African American people. Not only is it a day to look back on slavery, but it’s also an opportunity to look back on June of 1865, the differences we’ve made since then and the progress we can make in the future. Juneteenth motivates me to make a difference in my community, no matter what that looks like. And so I leave you guys with this question — what can you do to continue to make your community better?”

Junior pre-law major Alexis Thompson said when she sat down to prepare her thoughts for this day, she thought of those who were enslaved — their anticipation of freedom, the struggles and hardships it took to get to that point and ultimately, their emotions when their freedom was realized. She commended Campbell University for recognizing the day and using the platform as a teaching moment. 

“I can say the University truly puts action behind its words, building a community for all, and it is my hope that we will continue to strive to do this work, as it truly is needed during this time,” she said.

The event planned by Vice President for Student Life and Christian Mission Rev. Faithe Beam, and the content on display was curated by Divinity School graduate assistant Sara Acosta. 

“So much a part of who we are as an institution is building and nurturing ‘community,’ a place where we all find our sense of belonging and a place where we are all known,” Beam said. “I hope that this is an annual event, [and] that we are able to come together and reflect on what freedom means and the continual movement toward it.”