James Turner McLean was 5 years old the day he learned that for the rest of his life — a life that would span 85 years — he would be a free man.
For multiple generations, McLean’s family were slaves living on a plantation between what is now Buies Creek and the Cape Fear River. He was with the plantation owner at the post office on the day he learned the news of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. When he ran to tell his mother and grandmother, both women thought he was lying and threatened to put a “hickory to him” if he lied again.
McLean’s story is part of a display in Wiggins Memorial Library this week to celebrate Juneteenth, a holiday that celebrates the day the final enslaved men and women in Galveston, Texas, learned they were free in June of 1865 — more than two years after Lincoln’s act.
Campbell University’s Multicultural Council has partnered with Wiggins Memorial Library for the last two years to present books on Black history, books on the Black experience and testimonies from the men and women who experienced slavery in and around Harnett County in the 1800s.
Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021, and Monday has been designated a paid holiday for all Campbell employees.
The library’s Juneteenth display will be available to the public throughout the week.
“In addition to information on what Juneteenth is, a history of slavery in North Carolina and a reproduction of the emancipation order itself, we also have a photo of James McLean and a written account of an interview that the Library of Congress conducted with him in his sunset years,” said Sarah Acosta, director of student services for the Divinity School and event co-organizer. “James was born in and enslaved in Buies Creek. In his interview, he describes the area, what his life was like and the moment he learned of the Emancipation Proclamation.”
McLean says he remembers his mother — when she finally believed the news — blew a ram’s horn that could be heard a mile out to call the few dozen other enslaved men and women to the house to deliver the news. The plantation owner, he said, gave them wood to build homes and offered free housing and a paycheck if they chose to stay and work the farm. According to McLean, many would stay for another 15 or so years.
“We ought to think a lot of Abraham Lincoln and other great men such as Booker T. Washington. Lincoln set us free,” McLean says in his interview. “Slavery was a bad thing and unjust.”