Exploring the collections of the Mercantile Library:
Juneteenth: A Celebration of
Black Freedom, Art, and Hope

by Alyssa Persson, Aubash Collections Access Librarian
The Need for a New Birth of Freedom
On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass presented the keynote address at an Independence Day celebration held at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. Douglass gave a powerful oration, highlighting the dark irony in his being asked to deliver a speech in praise of the United States’ supposed birth of freedom. He knew the hypocrisy all too well, having been born into slavery. At the time Douglass gave this speech, the United States was hurtling ever closer toward a civil war fought over slavery. He was there to speak on the stark contrast of an Independence Day celebration while millions of Americans remained in chains, whether people wanted to acknowledge it or not.
 
Frederick Douglass’ full speech can be found in a compilation titled Negro Orators and Their Orations by Carter Godwin Woodson, which is part of the Dr. Helen E. Nash Collection of African Americana and Africana here at the Mercantile Library. What follows here is a selection of excerpts from that speech.
“...I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?...”
 
“I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave's point of view. Standing there identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this Fourth of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery, the great sin and shame of America! I will not equivocate; I will not excuse; I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just…”
 
“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes… There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”
Douglass closed by acknowledging “the dark picture” he had presented of the state of the nation, but professed his optimism:
 
“I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. ‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope.”
 
A Second Independence Day
Douglass’s hope was realized on June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas and 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 newly freed people in Texas. The Emancipation Proclamation had officially outlawed slavery in Texas and the other Confederate states almost two and a half years earlier; however, Texas, as the most remote slave state, had a meager presence of Union troops as the Civil War ended. As a result, enforcement there had been slow and inconsistent. It must also be acknowledged that slavery was still legal and practiced in two Union border states – Delaware and Kentucky – until December 6, 1865, with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.


Formerly enslaved people in Galveston celebrated after the announcement, and on June 19, 1866, one year later, freedmen in Texas organized the first of what became the annual observance of "Jubilee Day,” or Juneteenth. Early celebrations served as political rallies to give voting instructions to newly freed people and included church-centered community gatherings across Texas. Juneteenth spread across the South and became more commercialized in the 1920s and 1930s, often centering around food festivals. The holiday’s popularity grew further during the 1970s with a focus on African American freedom and arts.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture sums up the day in this way: “Juneteenth marks our country’s second independence day. Although it has long been celebrated in the African American community, this monumental event remains largely unknown to most Americans. The historical legacy of Juneteenth shows the value of never giving up hope in uncertain times.”
 
In honor of Juneteenth, just celebrated this past weekend, we wanted to highlight items held at the Mercantile which commemorate Black liberation, freedom, and art from the 19th century to the present day - with particular attention paid to Black St. Louisans. Many of the items featured here can be viewed in our 175th Anniversary Exhibition, currently on display and open to the public.
Local Leaders
Pictured is a handwritten narrative by John Berry Meachum, a St. Louisan born into slavery who became a businessman, teacher, and preacher. Meachum founded the First Baptist Church, the oldest Black church in the state of Missouri. When Missouri outlawed the education of Black people in 1847, Meachum found a loophole and opened the “Floating Freedom School” on a Mississippi River steamboat. He and his family also facilitated Underground Railroad stations through their home and church.
From the St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections.
The Mercantile Library holds two notes, one of which is featured here, documenting payments made by Priscilla Baltimore which were to be used to assist enslaved Black people escape to freedom from New Orleans. Baltimore was born into slavery and later purchased her freedom in St. Louis. She founded the town of Brooklyn, Illinois, the first Black freedom village and the oldest town incorporated by African Americans in the United States.
Writers
Left: First edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, written by Himself (1845). Right: First edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937), a classic of the Harlem Renaissance.
From the Dr. Helen E. Nash Collection at the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
Left: The Weary Blues (1927) and many other Langston Hughes writings, several of which are inscribed, can be found in the Dr. Helen E. Nash Collection here at the Mercantile Library. Born in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, a poet, novelist, playwright, columnist, and activist. Right: First edition of And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou (1978). This and many of Angelou’s other works can be found in the Dr. Helen E. Nash Collection here at the Mercantile Library. Angelou was born in St. Louis and was a prolific writer. A poet, memoirist, and activist, she was highly influential and helped increase Black feminist writings in the 1970s.
Performers
Left:  A 1929 autographed photo of Josephine Baker. Baker grew up in the Mill Creek Valley neighborhood of St. Louis and was a world renowned dancer, singer, actress, French Resistance agent, and civil rights activist. From the St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections.
Right:  A page from Chuck and Themetta Berry’s homemade scrapbooks, courtesy of the Charles E. Berry Living Trust. St. Louis’ own “Father of Rock and Roll” was influential to some of the most famous musicians of all time, including Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Buddy Holly.
Black Artists at the Mercantile Library
 
Roland Burrow (b. 1981) is a St. Louis painter and UMSL graduate. Burrow explains in his mission statement, “Growing up on the North Side, growing up black, leaves little opportunity to view your community in a positive light. Historically the images seen of the Black community are of slavery, gangs and thugs and poverty. My goal is to portray the black community in a positive light as opposed to the historically represented theme of negativity. The people that I paint are drawn from everyday scenes from my community. I portray the subject honestly with a vibrant and colorful palette. I intend to use my art to create a bridge of understanding between the black and white communities and begin to close the divide.”
Roland Burrow’s Letting Go (left), Rose (right), and Admiral (bottom). Oil on canvas.
From the St. Louis Mercantile Library Art Museum.
De’Joniero Jones (b. 1974) is a St. Louis painter and mixed media artist. Jones was raised on the border of Wellston and University City. Graduating from Parkway West High School in 1993, he pursued the clothing business before shifting focus to his own art and design style. His paintings and mixed-media artwork have been shown in a wide variety of galleries and venues. Jones expanded on the thematic scope and stylistic methods of his artwork after undergoing heart surgery in 2012. Since that time, Jones says creating art has been a therapeutic outlet for him.
City of Dred by De’Joneiro Jones, acrylic-mixed media on canvas.
From the St. Louis Mercantile Library Art Museum.
Alvin Lewis (b. 1990) is a St. Louis painter. On his website, Lewis describes himself as a self-taught artist who enjoys taking an idea or feeling and translating it onto canvas. He is partial to acrylic paint in creating conceptual art, focusing on people of color - often his family members and others close to him.
Untitled by Alvin Lewis. Acrylic on canvas en grisaille.
From the St. Louis Mercantile Library Art Museum.
Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was one of the most widely acclaimed artists of the 20th century. He was known for his portrayal of African American historical subjects and contemporary life. Lawrence referred to his style as "dynamic cubism” and stated that his primary influences were the shapes and colors of Harlem.
Builders #3, Lithograph by Jacob Lawrence. From The Bruce & Barbara Feldacker Labor Art Collection, St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Moving Forward
Mere days ago, Congress voted to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.  While it is certainly appropriate to commemorate this monumental day at the national level, it risks being solely a symbolic victory—which the creation of the last federal holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983, has at times seemed, when one notes the continued racial polarization, discrimination and systemic racism still present across the nation and the globe which Dr. King fought so hard to end. John Lewis (1940-2020), who marched alongside King and dedicated his life and career to civil rights activism, died last year. His namesake, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965, still awaits passage. So while we commemorate Juneteenth, let’s remember that the fight against racial injustice and for equality continues, so eloquently prophesied by Frederick Douglass as the duty of all free Americans. The Mercantile Library, its founders, members, supporters and collections, have been in that struggle proudly since 1846.


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