A Time of Reckoning - Juneteenth 2020

By: Binnie Tate Wilkin

Due to the disproportionate number of deaths among minorities during the current coronavirus pandemic combined with the thunderous cries of “I can’t breathe” by street marchers, Juneteenth “freedom” celebrations will be muted in the year 2020. The tragic and brutal death of George Floyd, viewed on television, has shocked younger Americans while arousing specters, among the elders, of Emmett Till, lynchings, massacres, burnings of African American communities, civil rights marches and MORE.

The book "Wilmington’s Lies, The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy" by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Zucchino makes clear in a searing fashion that slavery was not destroyed when the Civil War ended. In precise language, the author details the ruthless rise of the Ku Klux Klan, militias, and systems of “Jim Crow” in Wilmington, North Carolina ending in the massacre of African Americans. Left to their own devices by the federal government, southern states crushed hopes held by African American freedmen of participating in the “American Dream.” The scourge was allowed, infecting the entire nation.


Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration honoring the official end of slavery in the United States. The Emancipation proclamation, by executive federal order, proclaimed that all slaves were free, in 1863. But, the Civil War was not ended and rebel states, such as Texas, refused to obey the order. It was on June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger led thousands of federal troops into Galveston, Texas announcing that all those enslaved had been freed. By withholding this information, powerful slaveholders had condemned their chattel to two additional years of confinement.

June nineteenth, the date of Granger’s arrival became the target date for Juneteenth celebrations in Galveston, soon spreading to African American communities throughout the state and eventually the nation. In 1980, Emancipation Day, recognizing Juneteenth, became a legal holiday in Texas. Festivities are now held nationwide on or near the June nineteenth date. Some refer to this day of remembrance as Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, or African-American Independence Day. Efforts have ensued to make Juneteenth a national holiday. The events which led to this celebration remind us that the contract between the government and freed African captives has been historically tenuous and complex.


Similar to other public institutions designed to serve the American people, libraries have been slow in recognizing and responding to the information needs of African Americans and other minority populations. Factors accompanying systematic racism also have affected ALA, the primary organization guiding librarians in the public purveyance of information.

In 1970, I was among those who under the leadership of the venerable E. J. Josey organized the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA). Concerned about Southern states creating private schools to avoid complying with recently passed desegregation laws, I wrote a resolution proposing that ALA should censure public libraries that offered programs and services to schools designed to circumvent the law. With Josey’s help, my naive document was rewritten in acceptable form becoming the first resolution, from the newly formed caucus, passed by ALA. However, the resolution remained on the books with no action. But, the caucus prevailed and continually challenged ALA to respond to the needs of African-American librarians, to improve services in minority communities, and to recruit more minority librarians. For those who cared, ample evidence was provided about the effects of racism on librarians of color and their communities in E.J. Josey’s "Black Librarians Speak," a series of books documenting the experiences of Black librarians employed in all types of libraries.

Within ALA, some strides were made including electing librarians to Council, placing representatives on committees, and electing the first African-American President of the Association, Clara Jones of Detroit. BCALA actively challenged procedures and policies with some successes. The Coretta Scott King Book Awards was established protesting the dearth of minority images and authors on ALA’s list of Newbery Awards. Since that time, the Coretta Scott King Book Awards and its list of materials have become one of the most reliable and complete guides to outstanding literature for children by and about African Americans. With the help and prodding of progressive whites, the ALA Office of Outreach Services (OLOS) was formed, but, without sufficient staffing and funding, it has never reached its potential.

In 1986, after E.J. Josey became president of ALA, he requested that Elizabeth Martinez and I provide input regarding equal access to public library services. From the outline document, we devised "Equity at Issue" a larger policy document evolved. Later when Ms. Martinez became Executive Director of ALA, at her behest, funds for Spectrum Scholarships to recruit minority librarians were successfully appropriated. In spite of these accomplishments, the number and percentage of minority librarians have decreased and many minority communities still lack sufficient local library services.

BCALA has valiantly kept up the fight. In the name of justice and freedom, the organization has spoken out forcefully in response to recent revolts against police brutality. Statements followed from ALA leadership and major city and county libraries. It is ironic that this year’s postponed Black Caucus conference was scheduled to be held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the seat of one of the nation’s most violent massacres of African Americans. In 1921, white supremacist mobs attacked Black residents, their homes, and their businesses.


Because libraries are closed, and having fulfilled a more than 20-year standing invitation to present Juneteenth programming at the A. C. Bilbrew Branch of the Los Angeles County Library, I am filling the void by recommending that on Juneteenth or thereabout libraries find ways to reckon with racial issues which have brought us to this period of crisis. Through virtual storytelling and discussion, the CORE or ROOTS of racism could be aired and recorded. Solutions discussed might form the scaffolding upon which libraries and other essential institutions can design future endeavors. In my opinion, it seems essential for all individuals and institutions to examine what we value as a society. While shouting “Black Lives Matter!”, it seems imperative to also ask the question - What and whom do we value? My book African and African American Images in Newbery Award Winning Titles…was written on the premise that literature is important because readings provide sensory and literal input to the learning process. Children of all colors soon become aware of what and whom the society values. If we indeed VALUE the lives of minorities, programs that nurture and encourage them must be prioritized.  White supremacy evolves because people of lighter hues quickly learn that aesthetically and literally society values them most while minorities learn that they must fight to “breathe”, live and thrive.

As an octogenarian, I will continue storytelling and being an “ambassador for Africanness.” In conclusion, I offer my more than fifty years old storytelling mantra: “Let a kiss and a breath of air send my stories traveling on the wind…to touch a human spirit in distant lands…to connect with hearts and minds… slowly erasing imaginary lines which separates us from ourselves.”