By Kip Tabb | Outer Banks Voice on June 21, 2021
Growing up in Manteo, and now a regular member of the New York Metropolitan Opera Company, Tshombe Selby headlined the first Juneteenth Day celebration at the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum in Manteo. Singing traditional spirituals and often recounting the story behind them, Selby’s rich tenor voice brought the songs to life.
But the day was more than a musical recital. With the overwhelming vote in Congress to create our nation’s newest national holiday, Juneteenth is a day that commemorates both the horrors of enslavement and the joy of freedom.
“Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery in America,” Darrell Collins, President of the Pea Island Preservation Society, said. “Texas was the last state to secede from the Union to free their slaves, two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the end of the Civil War, on this day in 1865, Major General Gordon Granger read in public, General Order #3…announcing the war had ended and all slaves in Texas were free.”
Collins went on to explain the importance of the Saturday event, noting that for African Americans, Juneteenth had always been a day of celebration, but this year was special. “Probably the most important celebration is the 156th anniversary of Juneteenth…It’s a national holiday,” he said.
The story of enslavement and freedom was found on Roanoke Island where, Collins said, there were 170 slaves on the island in 1850. By 1864, with the knowledge that all they had to do to be free was cross Croatan Sound, there were 3,200 former slaves living in the Freedman’s Colony on the north end of island.
Richard Etheridge who was born into slavery on Roanoke Island and would go on to command the all-Black Pea Island Station Lifesaving crew, enlisted in the US Army in 1862, at his first opportunity after the Union Army defeated Confederate forces on the island.
Etheridge, with the ability to read and write, was the exception. States had strict prohibitions against allowing slaves access to education. But in the Freedman’s Colony, Collins said, “For the first time in their lives, the young and the old, were taught to read and write.”
Pointing out that the teachers were “missionary teachers,” he explained that the basic text for teaching literacy was the Bible. “In slavery and freedom, religion has always been the foundation of African-American culture,” he said.
Within that context, the traditional Negro spiritual takes on additional meaning, and Selby, whose powerful operatic style brought the songs to life, took a moment between many of the songs to talk about their meaning and where they originated.
His description of the origins of the songs was especially poignant while talking about Motherless Child.
“Can you imagine being taken from your home.…being age three and being ripped from your mother, being sold off?” he asked. “We know where we feel most comfortable is, where our mothers or fathers are, or whoever raised us is. Imagine being in a land where you don’t feel welcome — and you know that it’s not yours.”
In a modern sense, Selby described feeling uncomfortable or overwhelmed at work or by life. “We feel like a motherless child, a long way from home,” he said.
The song, perhaps best known as the rousing cry for freedom that Richie Havens sang at Woodstock, was given a very different feel by Selby and his accompanist, John Isenberg. Featuring a much slower tempo and a sense of sorrow, the song became a plaintive cry to return to a time of love and security that no longer existed.
Beginning the performance with Oh Freedom, Selby’s selections gave context to the history of the Black American experience with enslavement.
Oh Freedom, generally thought to have been written soon after the end of slavery in the United States, is a forceful repudiation of being owned by another human being.
“And before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave, And go home to my Lord and be free,” are the words of the song. Sung a cappella by Selby, the words became more powerful.
It would be hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to that day 156 years ago when the last contingent of slaves to learn they were free were finally told the truth. Gathered on the lawn in front of the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum, the songs and the history of the Juneteenth came to life in a celebration of history and music.
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