The Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth worked in tandem to mark the end of slavery in the United States more than 150 years ago, leaving nearly 4 million black Americans to ponder, “Where do we go from here?”
In the literal sense, that theme of community building and place-making is what UCF Associate Professor of History Scot French plans to explore in Friday’s virtual Juneteenth Celebration, organized by the Hannibal Square Community Land Trust.
The interactive event, which will stream on Facebook and YouTube, will feature the discussion “Imagining Freedom: Black Community and Creating Place,” led by French and former Rollins history professor Julian Chambliss, who now teaches at Michigan State University. The two have partnered on numerous community talks and engagements over the years and are respected Central Florida historians.
“We often think about the Great Migration as a northward movement, but Florida played an integral part in the movement of African Americans southward and westward in the post-Reconstruction Era,” French says. “Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, we saw the migration of previously enslaved people from Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi into Central Florida, which at the time was very much a frontier. It had not been part of plantation culture. There was no established class hierarchy. There were many transplants from the north, many native white southerners and many African Americans, so it created a unique demographic.
“This was a communal effort to place-make from scratch. Towns were being planned and plotted on maps and those subdivisions, for example in Hannibal Square and Eatonville, set aside for African Americans were very important. If they had not been created, African Americans may have been fully excluded from a place within the civic border. They wouldn’t have been able to exercise their rights as citizens or acquire property despite the fact that the Reconstruction amendments gave them full citizenship.”
Hannibal Square was founded in 1881 on the west side of Winter Park and was home to black families who worked as laborers for the white residents of the area, the railroad or the service industry that catered to visitors. The Hannibal Square Community Land Trust was established in 2004 to preserve the neighborhood’s heritage and history and maintain affordable housing for low- to moderate-income families in Hannibal Square and other areas of Central Florida.
French attended last year’s inaugural Juneteenth celebration and says he was struck by the similarities between the past and present day.
“The mission of the Hannibal Square Community Land Trust bears some similarity to the original vision of the founders of Eatonville and Hannibal Square,” he says. “To me there’s an arc to this that connects the history to the present. That’s really what the conversation is about — to explore this idea of not leaving it all to individuals and the free market to decide. Our theme is about the collective and communal efforts to build community for African Americans then, and for the working people today in Eatonville and Hannibal Square and Winter Park.”
Juneteenth — the June 19 commemoration of the belated announcement in Texas of the Emancipation Proclamation — as an official holiday and public observance was first established in Texas in 1980.
Since then, all but four states officially recognize the day. Today, some companies, including Nike, Twitter and Target, designate it as a paid holiday for employees.
French says Juneteenth is especially important this year as protests and demonstrations for social change and justice continue in the Black Lives Matter movement.
“You can’t understand what’s happening today without understanding the history of what’s happened in the past. That’s why this day is so important right now.”
“It’s very much a critical turning point in American history. And although Emancipation happened 155 years ago, the struggle for freedom and equality continues,” he says. “You can’t understand what’s happening today without understanding the history of what’s happened in the past. That’s why this day is so important right now.”
As a scholar of history and collective memory, French feels certain that 2020 will be remembered and discussed in the history books. Yet, he says it’s too early to know if current events will lead to meaningful and lasting change, although he hopes they will.
“I think the fact that so many people are paying attention right now to issues that many people did not know about or ignored or were successfully able to ignore — they simply cannot ignore it anymore. These issues are in your face,” he says. “I would like to think that this a moment where we can have conversations about reform and reimagining systems because people are open to it. They understand why it’s so important. They understand the problems with the way things are now and the need to change.
“I also know from history that there can be terrific backlash against movements like this. A part of me — the part of me that studies history — is also anxious for the future. I’m hoping that the momentum that we’re feeling right now for reform carries forward and that we have meaningful change. That in a year from now, a decade from now, we can look back and say that was the beginning of a new era.”