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Info Revolution

J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

Juneteenth remembers that in the days before the info superhighway, there was the frontage road

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

There is a small, unintended bit of irony in the holding of a Juneteenth Celebration at Nortel Corporation in Santa Clara last week.

PBX developer Nortel, after all, is part of Silicon Valley's Information Revolution, a company founded solely for the purpose of passing on data as fast as is digitally possible. Juneteenth, on the other hand, is an African American­-based holiday commemorating an event in American history that turned on a significant delay in getting out the news. The holiday marks the date (June 19, 1865) when Texas African Americans finally found out that slavery had ended--two months after African Americans in the rest of the country had been celebrating their freedom.

The event is slowly picking up steam as a nationally celebrated holiday.

Nortel's celebration, held during regular work hours in the company's cafeteria, was a standing-room-only affair, with waves of people coming in as shifts ended or meetings let out. Attendance was all the more significant because only 32 of Nortel's 2,000 employees are African American.

Mimi Watson, an executive assistant at Nortel and one of the organizers of the celebration, said she was surprised by the attendance. "Not too many people at our company knew the history of Juneteenth," she said. "We thought they might be reluctant to come." They weren't.

The celebration was, typically, a showcase of the vast range of African American culture, with presentations of African dance by dancer Titilayo Makina and drummer Moshe Milon of the East Bay, gospel singing by the Mount Olive A.O.H. Church of God youth choir of East Palo Alto and a fashion show by the Helping Hands Foundation of Union City that also included impromptu "voguing" by several Nortel employees enticed to come up on stage. One white worker gave what he called the "I don't give a damn" pose to uproarious laughter. The celebration program included an extensive collection of African American "soul food" recipes, from smoked sausage jambalaya to dirty rice to old-fashioned banana pudding.

Watson says that the picking of Juneteenth as the African American celebration at Nortel was actually an accident. Cultural celebrations are common at Nortel, with annual events marking Chinese New Year and Cinco De Mayo. The celebrations are financially supported by the company's Impact Club, which also puts on the annual company picnic and Christmas party. "But in the eight years I've been at Nortel, there was never anything done to mark the culture or achievements of African Americans," Watson said. "This year, we wanted to do something for Black History Month, but we got our proposal in too late, and the funds had already been allocated for February. So Juneteenth was next in line."

There are two explanations for the genesis of the events commemorated by Juneteenth.

The more or less official story is that when Confederate Commander Robert Lee surrendered his eastern Confederate army at Appomattox Courthouse in the spring of 1865, it was the de facto end of the Southern rebellion. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 could finally be enforced, and captive Africans throughout the former Confederacy were freed of their bonds.

But while Lee's forces put down their arms in the east, the western Confederate army had not. What with mopping up the remnants of the western rebels and then tramping on horseback up and down dusty roads to each and every plantation to spread the news, it took a while to get the word out that master was master no more. Texas, being the westernmost Confederate state, got the word last. Thus, the two-month delay.

Some Louisiana African Americans tell a different story.

"Oh, them Texas slavemasters got the Freedom word same time as everybody else," one elderly Baton Rouge woman once told me. "But it were just getting around planting time, and if them Negroes had got the word of Jubilee, they'd'a took off outta Texas like frogs in a rain, and you wouldn't've seen them again. So them slavemasters held off telling until after all the crops was down and the buds was showing in the rows, and then they called all them Negroes together in a big assembly and they said, 'Oh, by the way, there's a little something we done forgot to tell you.' And that day they finally tell them, that was the 19th of June."

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From the June 26-July 2, 1997 issue of Metro.

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