Celebrating history: Juneteenth reunites members of community

By Racey Burden | Published Wednesday, June 20, 2018

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Old Meets New

OLD MEETS NEW – A truck advertising Democratic candidates pulls a covered wagon trailer in the Juneteenth parade downtown Saturday. Messenger photo by Racey Burden

Mike Bell remembers the heyday of Juneteenth celebrations in Decatur.

In the 1950s and ’60s, the black community in the town numbered around 500 to 600 people. They would get together every year in June to celebrate Emancipation Day, June 19 – Juneteenth – at the Wise County Fairgrounds. Word of mouth spread through the Eastside neighborhood to let everyone know who needed to bring what – men brought the meat, ladies made sides and deserts – to the party.

SAYING HELLO – Local kids wave as a Decatur firetruck passes by in the Juneteenth parade. Messenger photo by Racey Burden

“There was so much food it was unreal,” said Bell, the organizer of this year’s Juneteenth celebration. “We would play basketball all day, play dominoes. It was a big event.

“That would be a time when we had on our new kickers, new clothes. That was our time to shine.”

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the black population in town dwindled as men and women left for bigger cities and better jobs. The annual Juneteenth celebration slowly died out.

In 1999, Bell and his aunt restarted the tradition, meeting for the first year in Harmon Park. Today the event – a parade downtown followed by a block party at Louida Willis Park – is also an educational opportunity.

“We’re trying to get people to know more history,” Bell said. “A lot of people move in and they don’t know there are blacks in the community. I love to see people fellowship and converse.”

Juneteenth also serves as a reunion of sorts for alumni of Eastside Elementary, the all-black campus that closed in 1965 when Decatur fully integrated. Though the Eastside Alumni Association holds a reunion every other year, many alumni come back for Juneteenth as well, recalling another huge transition for the black community – desegregation.

Bell was one of the students who transitioned straight from Eastside to Decatur High School as a freshman in 1965. He remembers people calling the black students slurs and throwing trash on them at lunch.

Trotting By

TROTTING BY – A pair of horseback riders brought up the rear of the Juneteenth parade Saturday. Messenger photo by Racey Burden

“It was a challenge for us to go there for a while,” Bell said. “I know what it is to transition… It made me stronger.”

Some of the Eastside alumni who graduated before Bell elected not to attend Decatur before full integration in ’65. A group of Eastside alumnae – Gwendolyn Brooks, Sharon Dawson and Annie Dawson – attended Fred Moore, the black high school in Denton. The women remembered Fred Moore fondly, recalling handsome teachers, going to state as part of the typewriting team and sneaking off campus to go to the malt shop across the street.

“It was a bunch of kids who were Motown,” Brooks said.

Everything was segregated at the time – movie theaters, restaurants, schools and most local stores. When given the option to attend Decatur or continue traveling to Fred Moore, the women took the long bus ride to stay with their friends.

“Being kids and having grown up in the era, segregation was the norm,” Brooks said.

“I told my mama, ‘I will quit. I won’t go [to Decatur],'” Sharon Dawson added. “I wanted to graduate with my class.”

They remembered some of their teachers at Eastside and Fred Moore being very strict, but their lessons have stuck with the women.

“I think they were so hard on us because they knew what we were going to face,” Brooks said.

To this day, most people don’t know about the history and difficulties of growing up black in rural Texas, Bell said. He hopes events like Juneteenth will inspire communication between the black and white communities.

“We’re going to have to deal with race,” Bell said. “It’s everywhere now. We may as well get used to it. We’re not going back. We might as well go forward.”

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