Thursday, June 19, 2008

My Black History: What was William Staples thinking on June 19, 1865?

William, one of my paternal great-great-grandfathers, was nearly 30 when freedom came for African Americans. Today, I am reflecting on William's life and the lives of other ancestors whose place in the timeline of history allowed them to know the threat of the lash and bondage, as well as freedom.

Today is June 19...Juneteenth...Freedom Day...the day the abolition of slavery was announced in Texas. While the Emancipation Proclamation, signed on September 22, 1862, was scheduled to take effect on January 1, 1863, it meant little immediately for most slaves, particularly ones in Confederate states, like my forefathers and foremothers in Mississippi, Alabama and Kentucky. For instance, it was not until June 19, 1865, that blacks in Texas learned of emancipation. That day is commemorated and celebrated in 28 states.

Since I began researching my family history, Juneteenth means more to me. Perhaps it's because I know the names (and sometimes the faces) of my forebearers who must have faced emancipation with a mix of fear and exhilaration. I know a little about their lives and can imagine where they were when they heard the news. For instance, my great-great-grandfather William was in the Civil War. We assume he traveled there with his master and served on the Confederate side. Was he in some encampment or beside some battlefield when he first heard the whisper that men like him were free?

The official Juneteenth Web site says:
Juneteenth is a day of reflection, a day of renewal, a pride-filled day. It is a moment in time taken to appreciate the African American experience. It is inclusive of all races, ethnicities and nationalities - as nothing is more comforting than the hand of a friend.

Juneteenth is a day on which honor and respect is paid for the sufferings of slavery. It is a day on which we acknowledge the evils of slavery and its aftermath. On Juneteenth we talk about our history and realize because of it, there will forever be a bond between us.

On Juneteenth we think about that moment in time when the enslaved in Galveston, Texas received word of their freedom. We imagine the depth of their emotions, their jubilant dance and their fear of the unknown.

Juneteenth is a day that we commit to each other the needed support as family, friends and co-workers. It is a day we build coalitions that enhance African American economics.

On Juneteenth we come together young and old to listen, to learn and to refresh the drive to achieve. It is a day where we all take one step closer together - to better utilize the energy wasted on racism.

Juneteenth is a day that we pray for peace and liberty for all.


Today, I offer honor and respect to my ancestors, William, Constantine, Violet, Abbey, Ned, Sallie, Arthur, Ann, Edmund, Mary and Joseph (pictured above), and all of the other Americans who were once denied life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I celebrate their lives and sacrifices.
Here is a short biography of my great-great-grandfather, William Staples, written by an unknown family member. I believe it contains a bit of hyperbole, but it means a lot to me, nonetheless:


Somewhere in the state of Kentucky, a young boy slave was sold for a small sum of coins. This boy was so young that if he was given a name as a baby, he didn't remember it.

One thing he did remember; however, were the whipping of other slaves on certain days of the week. Although he didn't know one day from another, he believed the "whipping days" occurred on Sundays or Mondays. When the whipping days would come, this young boy was smart enough to run off into woods. For protection against both nature and man, he would take a double-edge axe along with him.

The boy, later named William Staples, was not a coward--nor was he a violent person. However, his taking the axe into the woods led people to believe that he was a crazy man. They thought this because when they would find him, he would threaten to kill them while demanding that they give them respect. This, in itself, was a courageous act. Who'd ever heard of a slave demanding respect. Largely because of his threats and demand for respect, he was never whipped, and ultimately his capturers let him go because he showed courage and strength.

There is no record of how or why William left Kentucky nor when he married Miss Abbey. We do know that he served in the Civil War after he became a free man and moved from Winona to Drew, Mississippi, in 1913.

The union of William and Abbey produced 12 children: seven sons: William, Warren, John, Jim, George, Joe and Matt; and five daughters daughters: Mary, Ella, Georgina, Kate and Alice.

Some of their children remember their father being a tall man in statue and strappingly built . He kept himself busy making and selling baskets up into his golden years. As previously mentioned, William Staples was known as a man of courage and promoter of peace. He lived by his motto, "Never kill a man, unless you have to." He would remove himself from pending trouble because he felt that humans lived a short time anyway and would die soon enough.

Memories of Miss Abbey are sweet and notable. She was a good wife and mother, an excellent homemaker, a midwife and a quilt maker.

William and Abbey loved their children and grandchildren. After the death of their daughter, Kate, sometime in 1919, they openly received and welcomed Kate's children into their home. William often shared with them, and many of his other grandchildren, stories of his life as a slave.

The offspring of William and Abbey lived in Drew, Mississippi, until 1929, when many of them moved to Mound Bayou, Mississippi. From there, they moved to various cities across the United States.

William and Abbey Staples were religious people. They served God as AME Methodists. The roots of our family continue to symbolize our character and personality today. (From the memory of Lester Staples, Sr.)

Note: We owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Homer Trotter of Mound Bayou, Miss., who knew William well, and to Cicero Satterfield, for tracing our roots to the Archives of Washington, D.C. 17 years ago.


What other folks are saying about Juneteenth:

Eddie Griffin's Blog: Why I Remember Juneteenth

Dallas South: ">Why I Celebrate Juneteenth

Ultraviolet Underground: Remember Juneteenth

Black Perspectives: Today is Independence Day

Electronic Village: What is Juneteenth?

Slant Truth: Happy Juneteenth!

There Already: 163 Years Ago Today...

The Fort Wayne Blog: Juneteenth Celebration

All About Race: Juneteenth 2008

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