Seth Seward ’11 reflects on his family’s journey
By Seth Seward ’11, assistant director of alumni groups
What is Juneteenth? Juneteenth is a commemoration of the official end to the era of slavery. The holiday is recognized in most states. Major corporations are now making Juneteenth a paid holiday for their employees. Miami University is recognizing the holiday as well, and the university will be closed as of 2 p.m. in commemoration.
Juneteenth marks the day when slaves in Galveston, Texas, were told that they were free. Historian Henry Louis Gates noted that some 200,000 slaves were transported west to Texas by slave owners in 1862 after the capture of New Orleans in the spring of that year. He argues that this was done to avoid the reach of the Union Army. On Sept 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation which called for the end of slavery in the Confedaracy. On June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Maj. Gen Gordon Granger issued “General Orders. Number 3” to slaves in Galveston, Texas:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” – General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865
What does Juneteenth mean to me? As an African American, I think about my own family history. On my mother’s side, the earliest known relative was my great-great-grandfather Nathanial Walker, who was a sharecropper in Stone Mountain, Georgia. I wonder what this holiday meant to him. He was not too far removed from earlier generations of our family who were enslaved. I would love to hear the oral history of slavery that was probably passed down to him. He left Georgia for the north like many African Americans in his era to find better economic opportunity.
My great-great-grandfather settled in Mansfield, Ohio. He worked at a steel mill, later became an entrepreneur and even owned property (a rarity for African Americans in his time). At this current juncture, economic opportunity and housing are issues still being advocated by Blacks. I wonder what my great-great-grandfather would think of us now? I wish that I could have a conversation with him.
Additionally, I’m reminded of my father’s side of the family. My father in the past shared stories with me of older Black women on his side of the family who cleaned houses and watched other families’ children as a means to make ends meet. He also told me about my great-grandfather George Deslandes, who, with a college degree, was rendered to work as a pullman.
I also think about the time when my mother Carolyn Dulin Seward ’81 and I visited the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. It was emotional to physically see the artifacts that were preserved. It was particularly moving to see the history of slavery. After viewing these artifacts, I thought about my own family members from older generations and others who somehow survived this era. Going through the upper floors of the museum, we got to see artifacts from the eras of reconstruction and Jim Crow. I thought about the times when I traveled down south and experienced pleasures of eating at restaurants and staying at hotels. This was not a luxury that Blacks could enjoy over a half century ago. Going through the museum, I also saw the beauty of our culture and the celebration of our intellectual advancements.
I also think about the journey of my parents. They were born in small towns in Ohio during the civil rights movement. Both have memories of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being assassinated in 1968. My mother still remembers walking to school as a little girl and seeing kids of more affluent areas riding the bus to school. Both grew up in blue collar families. Going to Miami was a way for my parents to climb the social economic ladder. They were first-generation college students. The rigors of a liberal arts education were a challenge, and they found jobs on campus to support themselves. They laid the foundation for my brother and me. We stand on the shoulders of older generations who sacrificed for us and advocated for us to enjoy a better future. We enjoy luxuries now that older generations did not get to take part in.
This holiday causes me to think about our Black alumni and students. Throughout the years, our community found ways to persevere to obtain a liberal arts education and overcome social hurdles as students of color. Miami’s first Black graduate Nellie Craig comes to my mind. She persevered through a segregated Oxford, Ohio, to obtain her two-year degree. Other Black alumni who were students in the 1950s and earlier such as Jerry Williams, Arthur Miller, Mildred Boston Howell, Franklin Shands, Col. William Hargraves II, etc. had similar struggles as students of color but found a way to obtain their degrees. Unfortunately, similar issues persist even today for Black students. We have gone on to create our own legacy of achievement as students and alumni of Miami University. The current Black students remind me of those who come before them. They’re continuing our legacy.
Juneteenth is a day to celebrate the advancement of African Americans and to remember the history of slavery. The holiday is also a time for the country to examine where we go from here. Many of our Black alumni and students are protesting in the streets of cities across the country. They’re advocating for the same issues raised by older generations. I hope that their voices will be heard. Especially today.