Chattanooga celebrates Juneteenth, commemorates Black Wall Street

By Yolanda Putman

African syncopated drum beats flowed from Miller Park this week as the Chattanooga Festival of Black Arts & Ideas launched its fourth annual Juneteenth celebration on Memorial Day.

The goal of the nearly month-long festival is to make people aware of the significance of Juneteenth, according to Ricardo “Ric” Morris, festival founder and CEO.

July 4th means nothing to us,” said Morris paraphrasing the words of Abolitionist Frederick Douglas, “because as white Americans fought for independence from England on the Fourth of July, we were all still slaves and many of those same founding fathers owned slaves.”

But Juneteenth is when all of the community can celebrate because at that point, everyone was free, said Morris.

Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in America, started in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1866. The date is the first anniversary of when blacks in Texas learned that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, according to the website britannica.com.

Chattanooga City Council unanimously voted May 18 to make June 19th the 12th paid holiday for city employees. The paid holiday begins June 2022.

Chattanooga’s history-packed Juneteenth celebration began with a commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of Black Wall Street.

Local artists Morris, E’Tienne Easley, LaFrederick Thirkill and Marsha Mills all stood on Miller Park’s stage wearing bright white outfits and performed a dramatic reading that explained the significance of Black Wall Street.

Rhyme-N-Chatt poets told the story through spoken words, Dexter Bell & Friends featuring Jackie Ramsey told the story through music, Crystal Newman danced, Rosetta Greer, president of Crowning Your Essence, gave the purpose of the event and Kofi Mawuko started the celebration with African drum beats and songs.

Local resident Carolyn Newman stood with more than 50 people scattered throughout Miller Park during the event and recorded the celebration with her phone.

“I didn’t even realize that there was a Black Wall Street,” she said. “It has opened my eyes to Black History.”

It was May 31, 1921 when white rioters started a two-day decimation of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The nearly 40-block community was known as Black Wall Street because it was a self-sufficient community with black-owned businesses, schools, theaters and churches.

Blacks even owned an airport.

White rioters destroyed the town after a newspaper published an article stating that a black man, 19-year-old Dick Rowland, attacked a 17-year-old white girl, Sarah Page. The Tulsa Race Massacre was one of the most brutal in US history, leaving an entire community destroyed and an estimated 300 black people dead, 800 admitted to local hospitals and 10,000 people were left homeless. More than 600 businesses were destroyed, according to the readers.

“Black Wall Street was burned to the ground and bombed from the air,” said Thirkill during the reading. “All fueled by hatred and encouraged by the Klu Klux Klan.”

By the time the national guard arrived and Gov. James B.A. Robertson declared martial law, the riot had ended and the guards helped put out fires. They also imprisoned many black Tulsans and by June 2 some 6,000 people were under armed guard at the local fair ground.

In the hours after the Tulsa Race Massacre all charges against Rowland were dropped. The police concluded that he had most likely stumbled into Page or stepped on her foot.

Chattanooga News Chronicle Publisher and Rhyme-N-Chatt Poet Adrian Edwards read a poem explaining the motivation for some rioters.

“Just when we get this small taste of freedom, jealousy rears its ugly head,” he said. “I guess the other man believes that the only good black man is – one who is dead.”

For decades there were no public ceremonies, memorials for the dead or any efforts to commemorate the events from May 31 to June 1, 1921. Instead there was a deliberate effort to cover it up. It was rarely mentioned in history books or taught in school.

A bill in the Oklahoma State Senate requiring that all Oklahoma high schools teach the Tulsa Race Massacre failed to pass in 2012 with its opponents claiming that schools were already teaching students about the riots. In November 2018, The 1921 race riot commission was officially renamed the 1921 Race Massacre Commission.

President Joe Biden visited Tulsa this month to commemorate the event and meet with survivors.

Three hundred red flags in Miller Park symbolized the lives lost and blood shed during the 18 hours of murdering, burning and looting. It was one of the most horrific assaults not only on the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but on all black people living in America, said Morris.

Then all four readers joined in as Morris concluded the reading.

His voice was full of pain and passion.

“Every day I’m left exhausted from living black. I give up. We give up every day,” he said.

“But then a nuge, an ember of hope, sparks an idea. How might I be able to make a difference. How might I help one more person to understand what blacks have endured for more than 400 years in this land. Our hope is that a play, a song, a film or a painting might heal the hurt and bring us one step closer.”

Upcoming events for the Chattanooga Festival of Black Arts & Ideas Juneteenth celebration include the following:

June 4th – 25th Black Film Festival –
Community Haven 9 p.m. each Friday in June.

June 10th – Opening night Cocktails of Featured
Artist Joseph Forson’s Exhibit at the Proof Bar 6 p.m.

June 18th – Artist to Artist: A round table discussion
Keeody Gallery 6 p.m.

June 19th – Black Genealogy Workshop/ Chatt State 10 a.m.

June 19th – Juneteenth Independence Day/
All Schools Block Party/ Community Haven 3 to 9p.m.

June 20th – Black Dads Matter Father’s Day/
Jazz Brunch & Cruise 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.

Dexter Bell & Friends Featuring Jackie Ramsey.

For more information go to BlackArtsAndIdeasFest.com