The celebration of Juneteenth serves as a time for all people to revel in freedom and togetherness, but for residents of Pine Bluff, the history of freedom for African-Americans dates back even earlier than June 19, 1865.
There is a pictorial history in the atrium of the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas depicting the Oct. 25, 1863, Battle of Pine Bluff — a battle which Union forces won, securing freedom for blacks in Pine Bluff two years before slaves in Galveston were made aware of their freedom — the origin of the annual celebration of Juneteenth on June 19.
“The pictorial history was done by students at Watson Chapel,” said Lenore Shoults, executive director at the center. “It depicts African-Americans aiding in the battle that brought them their freedom.”
Lori Walker is the assistant director at the Pine Bluf Economic and Community Development Department — she is also somewhat of a local historian.
“When Union soldiers started occupying the area in September of 1863, slaves came on foot from as far as Drew County in search of freedom,” Walker said.
More than 2,000 African-Americans came willing to fight and die for what is every man’s unalienable right — freedom to pursue happiness.
“The Union was outnumbered and outgunned,” Walker said. “There were 600 Union soldiers compared to the Confederate’s 2,300 troops.”
Walker shared the narrative of an escaped slave named Boston Blackwell. He ran for two days and nights from the Blackwell plantation to safety at the Union Camp in Pine Bluff.
In later interviews with the Work Projects Administration, Blackwell said, “When we gets to the Yankee camp all our troubles was over. We gets all the contraband we could eat. Was they more run-aways there? Oh, Lordy, yessum. Hundreds, I reckon. Yessum, the Yankees feeds all them refugees on contraband. They made me a driver of a team in the quatamasters department. I was always keerful to do everything they telled me. They telled me I was free when I gets to the Yankee camp, but I couldn’t go outside much. Yessum, iffen you could get to the Yankee’s camp you was free right now.”
Blackwell went on to talk about the Battle of Pine Bluff, saying, “I was a soldier that day. No’um, I didn’t shoot no gun nor cannon. I carried water from the river for to put out the fire in the cotton bales what made the breas’works. Every time the ‘Federates shoot, the cotton, it come on fire.”
Walker said there were 300 black men — Blackwell included — who were not Union soldiers, but helped fight the Confederacy, ushering in an eventual victory for the North and the end of slavery in the area.
Walker said after the battle, a Union captain named James Talbot praised the black men, whose eyes had never seen a battle, for their valor and honor in war.
“If the Confederacy would have won, the slaves would have all been returned to their plantations,” Walker said. “In essence, it was that battle that secured the freedom for the African-Americans in Pine Bluff. And all of this happened before Juneteenth.”
The Union presence in Pine Bluff over time led to an influx of blacks in the population seeking a safe haven.
“There were three encampments in Pine Bluff at that time,” said Shoults, director at the center.
Schools developed in these encampments, Shoults said, and those schools where African-American children were educated led to the founding of what is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
Walker said the first Freedman’s Bureau in Pine Bluff was located where the railroad museum now stands.
“There’s a lot of rich history here yet to be told,” Walker said. “We want to continue to develop and build our city based on that history.”
There will be celebrations and events honoring African-American heritage and Juneteenth in Rison, Wilmar and Little Rock.
The Lanwood-Risonian Civic and Social Club will celebrate its 16th annual Juneteenth Festival starting at 11 a.m. Saturday. There will be gospel music groups performing, and Pine Bluff resident John Mitchell will give a presentation about the role of black soldiers during the Civil War.
Mitchell said there will also be a two-day event in Wilmar the weekend of Friday, June 20. He said there will be a motorcycle and car show on Friday and a blues concert and cookout will be held Saturday.
The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center is hosting a street festival from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, June 21, at its location on 501 West Ninth St. in downtown Little Rock. Tameka Lee, director of community relations at the center, said food vendors, live entertainment and spoken word performance will all be free to the public.
She said at 1 p.m. on the third floor of the center there will also be a screening of “American Experience: Freedom Summer,” a documentary about the summer of 1964 when 700 students organized efforts to canvas for voter registration and create freedom schools.
In addition, Foreign Tongues Poetry Troupe will facilitate a poetry, writing and music workshop for youths ages 13-18. The workshop will be in dedication to Maya Angelou, who recently died in May. They will encourage the young artists to amplify their creativity using their talents to promote social justice.
“We focus on African-American history,” Lee said. “But we want everyone to be able to see themselves in the story of Arkansas’ past.”