Proclaim Liberty: Juneteenth Observed
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost [Juneteenth observed], June 16, 2013
I have chosen this remarkable passage from Jeremiah as our text for reflection because of the way it deals with slavery in ancient Israel. It does not appear in the three-year lectionary cycle of readings for worship, and so it is little preached on, but it serves us well today as we reflect on Juneteenth.
“King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to make a proclamation of liberty – that all should set free their Hebrew slaves, male and female, so that no one should hold another Judean in slavery. And they obeyed, all the officials and all the people who had entered into the covenant that all would set free their slaves, male or female, so that they would not be enslaved again; they obeyed and set them free.”
The covenantal background here is the Biblical Jubilee described in Leviticus 25 and Isaiah 61, in which every seven years those held in debt bondage were released with their debts forgiven, and the land itself was given rest from constant production for human need.
This is the same Jubilee announced by Jesus as the beginning of his ministry when he declared
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free
and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jubilee practice is rooted in Israel’s earliest memory of the God who freed slaves from the oppression of Egypt, the God of Exodus who made a covenant with Israel so that God’s free people would never again be enslaved, even to one another. But Israel ignored the hedge the Jubilee slave release provided against the tendency of humans to exploit one another for selfish gain.
The historical context for this passage is Judah’s war with Babylon that eventually led to the fall of Jerusalem in 587 and the exile of its ruling families and priestly leadership. We don’t know why Zedekiah suddenly announced liberty to the slaves. Perhaps it was a desperate attempt to demonstrate covenant fidelity and save the city, a prayer in a foxhole, so to speak. Perhaps it was genuine repentance, as suggested by verse 15, for the practice of slavery that effectively denied the God of Exodus and made Israel little different than its Imperial neighbors. Whatever it was, Jeremiah tells is that God noticed act and God thought it was a good thing. And the text is clear, freedom is something the slaves themselves desired. But then, just as suddenly, Jerusalem repents its repentance and takes back their male and female slaves, rendering freedom null and void. In so doing, says Jeremiah, Israel profaned the name of God. As a result, God will now set Israel free; free to experience sword, pestilence and famine, free to be treated by Babylon as they treat one other, free to watch the destruction of their city, free of their own freedom.
No wonder we don’t read this very often.
Juneteenth (celebrated annually on June 19th, which is this Wednesday) is African Americans’ Independence Day, also known as Emancipation Day or Freedom Day. It celebrates the end of slavery in Texas – a symbol of the South. When Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, it had little immediate effect on most slaves, particularly in the Confederate States. Most African Americans remained slaves until the end of the Civil War in 1865. But in Galveston, Texas, slaves did not even get the word that slavery had ended until June 19, 1865, two and a half years after President Lincoln had freed them with the Emancipation Proclamation. Texas resisted to the very end. On June 18th General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston with 2,000 federal troops to enforce the emancipation of slaves. On June 19th, from the balcony of the Ashton Villa, he declared, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.” The streets filled with jubilant celebrations, and Juneteenth began to be celebrated the following year. Today it is officially observed in 42 states, including New York, and here in White Plains.
New York has its own stories of freedom and resistance.
Emancipation in New York began with the Society of Friends more commonly known as Quakers, in what is now Harrison and Purchase, just to our East. In 1760, the abolitionist and Quaker preacher John Woolman visited Rye with his anti-slavery message, and convinced many in the Society of Friends to free their slaves. Seven years later the Quakers in Purchase petitioned the New York Yearly Meeting, something like our Presbytery, to support the abolition of slavery and demonstrate such support in their own lives. For the next ten years, individual Quakers were encouraged by the Meeting to voluntarily free their slaves until, in 1777, they voted to disown anyone who resisted emancipation. Essentially, if you refused to emancipate your slaves, you were barred from membership in the Society of Friends. It was not until 40 years later that New York state passed the law abolishing slavery in 1817 and designating a 10 year period for the gradual manumission of slaves, to be completed by 1827. The Governor who signed that bill into law was none other than Daniel D. Tompkins, a Presbyterian and a child of this congregation.[i]
The Quakers, however, had no such “gradual” approach which was designed to protect the economic interests of slaveholders. Instead their focus was on the slaves themselves. You see the Quakers didn’t just free their slaves, leaving men, women and children to fend for themselves in a hostile economy and society. The Quakers in Purchase also offered economic compensation to their former slaves. Committed to the welfare of their new neighbors, the Quakers gave formers slaves rough farmland, land for a church and helped them build houses. This is how Stony Hill, New York’s first free black community, was created. Most residents practiced subsistence farming, or served as carpenters, shoemakers or laborers for the white farmers. The community was solidly centered in the black church and provided a safe place for free blacks, not only of New York, but for those migrating North, and later for those travelling the underground railroad to freedom.
Do you know where this community was? Just about a mile from here in what is now Silver Lake Preserve. If you have not been, or have not been in a while, I encourage you to check it out. Silver Lake Preserve today is 167 acres of trails and lake wandering over the visible remains of Stony Hill, including the remains of many homes and a cemetery full of civil war soldiers who served in New York’s first black regiments.[ii]
Our Psalm this morning instructs us to teach our children about the past so that they might not repeat the mistakes of previous generations. That means telling both “the glorious deeds” and the “dark sayings”; the good and the bad. So let me do that with some of our own history as it relates to slavery.
Just a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to take a guided hike through Silver Lake Preserve with a naturalist from Westchester County Parks and a historian from Hartwick College, Dr. Edythe Ann Quinn. I took the opportunity to ask her about possible relations between Presbyterians in White Plains and the residents of Stony Hill. Her response was to pose the question, “What do you think it was like for free blacks to leave the safe confines of Stony Hill and visit the county seat in White Plains on the eve of the civil war?”
Whites and blacks, we know, played and worked together, some of the children went to school together, and at least one family intermarried. But blacks could also encounter hostility. One of prominent members of this church, Edmund Sutherland, who was at various times Superintendent of Schools, Town Supervisor, and a member of the New York State Assembly, was also the publisher of the Easter Star Journal. The Journal was the Democratic Party newspaper for Westchester that was, as Dr. Quinn put it, anti-Lincoln and pro-slavery. Headlines regularly demanded concessions for the Southern planters and enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act.[iii]
Of course, that should come as no surprise: most of New York State was anti-Lincoln and pro-slavery, not out of any love for slavery but out of economic self-interest. The merchants, bankers and traders, who made up this community, not to mentions the immigrant labor force, all feared the loss of Cotton revenue and the impact of free blacks moving north looking for jobs. A good many stood in the way of freedom because they were, literally, invested in the status quo. And that included the pastor of this church, David Teese (1853-1864, 1865-1869).
Juneteenth reminds us that from Zedekiah’s Day until our own, there has always been resistance to the exercise of freedom. Between the proclamation of freedom and its realization, there is often a lag in time. But that lag profanes God’s name, and requires compensation.
Our congregation was clearly divided, on the eve of the civil war. Twice they tried to remove their outspoken pro-slavery pastor, Rev. Teese, from the pulpit; families moved their membership elsewhere, financial support waned. Eventually, the pastor left. And when Edmund Sutherland, that prominent pro-slavery church member who was a politician and newspaper publisher, passed away childless, a schoolhouse he possessed was left to church. The church, in turn, gave it to the Stony Hill Community in what seems to me, a small act of reparation to the now free black community who had born the brunt of his hostility and the church’s inaction.
So as we enter this week, both the Biblical texts and our observance of Juneteenth invite us to speak clearly about God’s demand for human freedom and impatience with our prolonged delays that profane God’s very name. Our urgency for human rights and well-being should match God’s very own. Knowing more about parts of our own congregation’s 300 year history reminds us that God entrusts to every generation the power and the responsibility to promote human freedom and dignity. And in this time and this place, our decisions about what we stand for, who we welcome, what we are ready to risk and sacrifice and join, are our legacy as much as the stones of this building or the markers in the cemetery. For our words and our actions have the power to build or to impede God’s kin-dom coming on earth. So as we enter our 300th year, let us take up the gauntlet thrown down by history, with courage. Let us tell the truth about our past – our uncertainties, our mistakes, our insights, our compassion, our reticence, our boldness. Let us take seriously the exhortation of the Psalmist and pledge that “we will tell the next generation” so that they can be guided by past mistakes as well as successes, that we and they may put our trust in God, and keep God’s commandments.
[i] HERITAGE FACT: Daniel D. Tompkins – Biographer Ray Irwin has written,
“Most Americans, if questioned about Daniel Tompkins, would have to plead total ignorance. Many historians would find it difficult to describe him with any accuracy. He remains a dim figure even in New York City, where among the multitudes who daily throng Tompkins Square in Manhattan and Tompkinsville, Staten Island, there can be few who ever associate those localities with the individual for whom they are named.”
Since we will get to know Daniel D. Tompkins and his family in Heritage Facts throughout the summer, let’s summarize a few important facts about him:
- Daniel Tompkins was born on June 21, 1774, at Fox Meadow, Scarsdale.
- He was presumably baptized in this church, where his father was a Trustee. His family remained active here for generations.
- Daniel studied law at Columbia University, and served on the NY Supreme Court (1804-7).
- He was elected Governor of New York and served from 1807 until 1816.
- Daniel served two terms as Vice-President of the United States under James Monroe (1817-1825).
- Though Daniel is buried in with his wife in her family vault at St.-Mark’s-in-the-Bowery, NYC, the rest of the Tompkins family (parents, siblings) are all buried in our church yard.