Lew Frederick

Oregon is one step closer to observing the proclamation of the end of slavery in the United States as a state holiday.

The Senate voted 28-0 on Tuesday to make June 19 Oregon's 10th official state holiday starting in 2022. House Bill 2168 returns to the House for action on amendments.

Most states have given it official recognition, but few have made it a legal holiday.

It's popularly known as "Juneteenth," which commemorates June 19, 1865, when the news of the Emancipation Proclamation was brought to Galveston, Texas. Two months earlier, Confederate forces under Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union Army led by Gen. U.S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in McLean, Va., and ending the Civil War.

"That is basic historic information, but it does not do really justice to the emotions involved here," Sen. Lew Frederick, a Democrat from Portland and one of three Black senators, said in presenting the bill. "Sometimes a picture is needed."

Four photos, four generations

Frederick proceeded to do just that in four family photos — enlarged for the presentation — that cover four generations and tell much of the story of Black America from the Civil War to today.

The first depicted his great-grandfather, Robert Johnson, who was born into slavery, but joined the Union Army as a boy as it marched into Mississippi. When Vicksburg fell from into Union hands in July 1863, the Union controlled the Mississippi River and the Confederacy was split in two.

Frederick said his forebears were likely slaves owned by Jefferson Davis, a Mississippi plantation owner who was president of the Confederacy, and also a former U.S. secretary of war and U.S. senator.

"Johnson and his parents and others who looked like him worked in the fields under the threat of death," he said. "They had no control over their family, access to food or shelter. They could not make any decisions on their own."

But when the photo was taken in 1954, Johnson, then 103, is standing next to one of his daughters — Frederick's grandmother — Frederick's parents, and Frederick's sister Carla. Lew, then only 3, was in front. (His brother David was born a few months later.) It was before a processional at Southern University, a historically Black college in Louisiana, where Frederick's father was a young biology professor.

"It was a proud day for him," Frederick recalled. He paused and his voice cracked, "A family going from slaves in Mississippi to university biology professor."

When the Civil War ended and Blacks learned they were free — the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln had freed slaves in the 11 states of the Confederacy — Frederick said his forebears had two reactions.

"The family stories say joy was the first emotion; next, skepticism," he said. "Active and often deadly reactions followed against freed African Americans by whites fearful they might be treated the way they had treated their former slaves. But hope stood at the center of a possible future for my family."

The second photo depicts his grandparents in Hayti, Missouri, where they were sharecroppers and teachers, plus his father, four siblings and a neighbor. Frederick said they left Mississippi because of restrictions on teaching Black children to read.

"They moved to Missouri, where they could get books," he said. "Of course, the books were the books that had been thrown out by the white schools, but they were books. The hope continues to this day, and so does the skepticism. The two dance together in our time."

The third photo depicts Frederick as a boy marching with his mother, his sister and others in Atlanta, most likely in the 1960s. He is holding a sign protesting the jailing of Ashton Jones, a white Quaker minister who was a close associate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader.

"This was one of the many demonstrations we were in Atlanta when I was growing up," he said. "The Jim Crow South still did not recognize the idea of the Emancipation Proclamation."

The fourth photo is more recent. It depicts Michelle Obama with Frederick's parents in 2015, when she became the second presidential spouse — and the spouse of the first Black president — to speak at a commencement ceremony at Tuskegee University, another historically Black college in Alabama. The first was Eleanor Roosevelt back in 1941, when it was Tuskegee Institute, and she flew with what became the Tuskegee Airmen. Frederick's father was present at both ceremonies, 74 years apart.

Frederick, a communications consultant and a former reporter, said that photo hangs in his parents' bedroom today.

"It's what keeps me going," he said. "That sense of hope keeps the community going as well, despite the fact there are folks who want to return to the deep Confederacy in whatever way they can."

A soldier's story

Sen. James Manning Jr., a Democrat from Eugene who also is Black, also talked about his father, a combat veteran of World War II who fought in Italy in a segregated Army unit that took heavy casualties. But when he came home, Manning said, his country did not welcome him back.

"He was trying to make the adjustment to reality. He didn't have all the rights that everyone else had who had served in combat. So alcohol was his substance of choice," Manning said. "I saw him crumble because he didn't have access."

Manning himself is a 24-year veteran of the Army — which was desegregated in 1948 — and was in the service to see Army Gen. Colin Powell become the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the principal military adviser to the president.

Frederick said he is building on the efforts of Clara Peoples, a Kaiser Shipyards worker who instituted Portland's first Juneteenth celebration in 1945, and others he named. Peoples is acknowledged as Portland's "mother of Juneteenth."

A year ago, after the murder of George Floyd by a now-former Minneapolis police officer touched off racial justice protests nationally, the city of Portland and Multnomah County declared June 19 a holiday. Gov. Kate Brown said then she would seek to make June 19 a legal holiday; HB 2168 was introduced at her request.

Whether it becomes a paid holiday for state employees will hinge on labor negotiations.

"With this bill, this proclamation, we can learn from another time and dedicate to changing the future in real time without waiting for the news of equality to arrive on horseback," Frederick said. "I recognize the efforts to resisting the arc of history bending toward justice will always be there. But this new holiday recognizes that the people of Oregon, despite our past, can take the veil of ignorance away and each year celebrate hope on Juneteenth. It is a marker to read and remember."

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