Battle Creek

Juneteenth celebration in Battle Creek educates and inspires

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series

BATTLE CREEK, MI — Sam Gray was aware of the slavery that defined his ancestors. It wasn’t until 2003 that he learned about an annual event commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.
“I tell people I didn’t even know anything about Juneteenth until 2003. It wasn’t taught about in school or brought up in the community or even my own family,” says Gray, Chairperson of Battle Creek’s Juneteenth celebration which takes place on Friday and Saturday. 

The festivities include a screening of the movie “Wish” at Washington Heights United Methodist Church and a festival on Saturday at Claude Evans Park that includes food, retail, and community resources vendors, and live music.
The irony is that he now works with his wife, Lynn Ward Gray, who is the Treasurer and head of Public Relations, to organize the city’s Juneteenth observance, a significant moment in history for African Americans that for many years he knew nothing about is not lost on him.
Although Juneteenth has been celebrated since 1866, observances in Battle Creek and other cities throughout Michigan didn’t begin until Roberta Cribbs, then-president of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), charged individual branches with holding their own celebrations.
“Since 2003 we’ve made a conscious effort to celebrate and bring it to the attention of all people we interact including in our places of work, our community, and our churches,” Gray says.  “It’s all about remembering, reflecting, educating and celebrating.”
In 2009, the local event became a collaboration between the Juneteenth Celebration Committee and the Southwestern Michigan Urban League,
The education piece is of particular significance to Gray who says that the teaching of Black history in schools throughout the United States is being marginalized or not taught at all.
Since January 2021, 44 states have introduced bills and at least 18 have passed laws restricting or banning the teaching of supposed critical race theory, according to an article on The74million website.

“Just 12 states (Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington) have Black history mandates for K-12 public schools,” according to the article.  "In addition,  Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, and Rhode Island have legislated Black history courses or electives during the last two years. But several of the 12 states have new laws on the books that limit their curriculum.”
“Whoever controls the narrative, controls the story,” Gray says. “We had African American studies taught to us in high school. It’s currently not being taught in school.”
Battle Creek Public Schools is among several schools in Michigan that  teach African American studies.
“We do not have a specific course right now on African American studies, but it is integrated into our history and social studies classes,” says Charlie Fulbright, Vice President of the BCPS School Board.
In addition, the College Board has selected 20 high schools in Michigan to be part of a pilot program this fall for the new Advanced Placement African American studies course, according to information on the Michigan Department of Education’s website.
To help educate students in Battle Creek about the importance of Juneteenth to their collective history, Gray says the city’s celebration includes an essay contest where high school students are asked to write about what Juneteenth means to them. This year 15 entries were received and the top three will be recognized during the two-day event.
“During Black History Month we sponsor the Heritage Quiz Bowl and several questions are about Juneteenth,” Gray says. “We continue to try to educate students about Juneteenth and Black History.”
An event he tabled at Northwestern Middle School where he spoke to students about Juneteenth underscored the importance of this education piece.
“I asked, ‘Do you know what Juneteenth is?’ and they would look at me like what is that? I really think it’s something that needs to be taught and not just during a two-day celebration. I’m hoping parents are talking to their kids about it.”
Recognition at the national level
In 2021 President Joe Biden signed a bill into law to officially designate Juneteenth as a federal holiday. 
Gray paints a picture of the importance of this national recognition when he presents the history behind it as local Juneteenth celebrations get underway. The struggle that his ancestors endured while being chained together in the holds of slave ships and the inhumane treatment they endured is something people need to acknowledge and never forget.

“When I think about it and think about the voyage over here and how slaves were treated, you were treated less than,” he says. “You were this two-thirds of a person. I bleed the same color of blood and I’m treated less than. 'We the people' did not apply to us.”
With the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln ended slavery in Confederate states.
But not everyone in Confederate territory would immediately be free, according to information on the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) website.
“Even though the Emancipation Proclamation was made effective in 1863, it could not be implemented in places still under Confederate control. As a result, in the westernmost Confederate state of Texas, enslaved people would not be free until much later. Freedom finally came on June 19, 1865, when some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. The army announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved black people in the state, were free by executive decree. This day came to be known as 'Juneteenth' by the newly freed people in Texas,” according to the NMAAHC story.
“I think about the day that 250,000 slaves learned they were free and how they celebrated,” Gray says. “Juneteenth is a day to be able to reflect on those struggles and how people persevered, how they’ve been innovative, and how they built this country. This is America’s history and I think all people should know it.”

More on this year's Battle Creek Juneteenth

Battle Creek’s Juneteenth event will include awards recognizing the work of community members who are doing “incredible work in our community,” says Gray.
This year’s recipients include one who won’t be publicly recognized until the awards are announced. The recipients who have been publicly identified are:
Pastor John Boyd, founder of Love in Action Ministries, for his work with the city’s young people, an intervention initiative to help victims of crime and their families along with the role he played to get a Splash Pad located at Claude Evans Park.

The Splash Pad Committee in Neighborhood Planning Council 2 is being recognized for getting the splash pad located at Claude Evans Park.
Rosetta Brewer, who passed away in February, for her work in the community which included the co-founding in 2019 of  S.I.S.T.E.R.S. (Sharing In the Support of Those Enforcing Victims’ Rights Shamelessly), participating in Turning Pain Into Purpose made up of mothers whose sons and daughters were the victims of violent crimes in Battle Creek that have yet to be solved, and the placing of four flagpoles at Claude Evans Park and banners in the Washington Heights neighborhood.
Michelle Warren, a fitness professional, is being recognized for the healthy initiatives she’s spearheading in the community.
Marcelle Heath, a local educator and business owner, is being recognized for the Fatherhood & Family Service Hub he founded which officially opened in March
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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.