Juneteenth: A Family Story

The author at the plantation in Georgia where his great-grandfather was born. Photo: Alexander Padro

When President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act last year, the nation finally had a national holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the US. Some thought the new holiday should have been on the date of the declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation in September or its enactment in January, or the date of the passage of the 13th Amendment ending slavery. But having grown up in Oklahoma and Colorado, where Juneteenth celebrations were commonplace, I think Juneteenth was the right choice.

The first big celebration of the end of slavery was actually here in Washington DC, on April 19, 1866, when the Black community celebrated the fourth anniversary of the law emancipating slaves in the District of Columbia. It started with an assembly of Black troops and civic association members in front of the White House, where President Andrew Johnson welcomed the crowd and shook hands with people approaching him. As Harper’s Weekly recorded the event, “The procession then re-formed and took up the line of march along Pennsylvania Avenue. In passing the Capitol cheer after cheer rent the air in compliment to their legislative friends. There were probably 4,000 or 5,000 colored men in the procession, while 10,000 of the same race were interested spectators, manifesting their joy and gladness by waving their hats and handkerchiefs and cheering lustily the passing procession. The celebration was closed with religious services and the delivery of addresses in Franklin Square in the presence of a vast multitude.”

Celebrations of the end of slavery in the Western United States took a different turn. While most presume that the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender at Appomattox in April 1865 marked the end of the Civil War, the situation in the West was more complicated. Other Confederate armies had yet to give up and there were even occasional hostilities. The Confederate army in Texas did not surrender until June. When Union General Gordon Granger took over Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, his announcement that any previously enslaved people were thereafter free made that the date for commemorating emancipation. There were Juneteenth celebrations in Texas the following year.

The Mann Family Early History

My family’s time in the West starts with my great-grandfather, the first Pleasant Mann, who was born into slavery on a plantation near Calhoun, Georgia in 1852. He was likely liberated during General Sherman’s march towards Atlanta. While there is at least one story that said the plantation owner tried to implement Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, mandating that every emancipated family get 40 acres of land and a mule, Pleasant did not stay there. He made his way west, taking opportunities to work at sharecropping, until he reached Texas. In 1878, he married Octavia Porter, whose father, a White man, owned land. The census records for Grayson County, Texas show Pleasant farming next to his in-laws. Octavia’s father eventually formally deeded the land to his children before he died.

The first Emancipation Day celebration in DC’s Franklin Square.
Harper’s Weekly graphic. Library of Congress

Pleasant and Octavia quietly farmed and raised eight children in Texas. According to census records, they were still in Texas in 1900. By 1910, the family had moved to Oklahoma. Family lore does not offer much detail on
what prompted the move to Oklahoma, but Pleasant did it in his mid-forties. He and his family, and at least one of his in-laws, moved to the all-Black town of Grayson.

Oklahoma attracted a number of Blacks in this period, with notable Black towns such as Boley, which still has an annual Black Rodeo, and Langston, formed with the intent of creating a Black state in Oklahoma Territory, and the location of a Historically Black College. Some of this migration was encouraged when the Creek Nation was forced to break up the land it held in-common and give it out as individual parcels to tribal members. A number of Creeks divided their 160 acres into smaller lots that Blacks moving to Oklahoma could purchase. Being in the West, Juneteenth was the celebratory day for Oklahoma Blacks. Indeed, the last novel by Oklahoma-born author Ralph Ellison is entitled “Juneteenth.”

The Tulsa Massacre and Aftermath

Pleasant’s children did not stay on the farm for long. Ben, the oldest, wound up in Okmulgee and started a grocery store. The next oldest, John Douglas “J.D.” Mann moved to Tulsa and set up his own grocery on Greenwood Avenue. Not long after, my grandfather McKinley Mann and his brother Obie opened a grocery on Lansing, appropriately named Mann Bros., just before the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921. Obie Mann is credited in books like “The Burning” with leading the resistance to the attacks against the Greenwood community during the riot. After hostilities ended, Obie had to skip town for a time until it became clear that the indictment issued against him after the riot would not be carried out.

While Mann Bros. had been burned out, there were enough savings that my grandfather could rebuild it. He married my grandmother, a member of the Creek Nation, three months after the Tulsa riot. Eventually all of Greenwood was rebuilt. This was bolstered by the fact that Tulsa’s Blacks had little inclination to patronize White stores, encouraging the development of a full spectrum of Black-owned businesses. When my mother’s family came from Kentucky to visit, they were amazed at the strong Black community they found there with its own retail, doctors, dentists and even its own hospital. Still, there were some adjustments required. Greenwood had a barbeque joint with separate entrances for Whites and Blacks. My father also told me of a drive-in theater that prohibited Black patrons, even though a Black man owned the land under it.

There is also an emancipation story on my mother’s side of the family. Her great-grandfather, Green Thurman, was allowed to join the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. He fought in the Battle of New Market Heights near Richmond in September 1864. After the war, he went back to Lawrenceburg, Kentucky and became a tobacco farmer. When he applied for a soldier’s pension in the 20th Century, his file included an affidavit: “I knew Green Thurman. My father gave him to me.”

Mann Bros. Grocery in Tulsa with McKinley Mann (far right). Photo
courtesy of the Mann Family

Obie Mann died in 1946, and after my grandfather died, Mann Bros. grocery closed in 1961. Soon after, my father moved the family to Denver. As Black Consciousness grew in the Sixties, Juneteenth became the obvious time for celebrations. As schools integrated, Negro History Week had started to diminwh as an important date on the calendar, without the prominence that Black History Month has today. One of the first big Black cultural celebrations I remember was in June 1969 at Five Points, the heart of Black Denver since the time that Madame C.J. Walker and Hattie McDaniel lived in the city.

Juneteenth has now come full circle,  growing from a Western holiday to a national one. My family, with branches around the country, and the rest of the nation now have an official date to celebrate emancipation.
Happy Juneteenth!

Pleasant Mann is a 35-year resident of the Shaw neighborhood and is well-versed in its history and community development. He writes the monthly “Shaw Streets” column for MidCity DC.