Ten-year-old Keith McNeil was learning what it was like to be a young slave on an antebellum plantation at Saturday’s Juneteenth celebration at Historic Stagville.
Children couldn’t choose what they want to eat. They didn’t have modern stoves and microwaves. And spending the day playing video games wasn’t an option.
“They are forced to do what they do unless they choose not to,” Keith said. “If they choose not to, they will either be tortured or killed.”
Those were some of the observations from Keith and his friends as they took in the Juneteenth celebration at the Stagville State Historic Site on Saturday, June 17.
The 165-acre Stagville site is a tiny corner of what was North Carolina’s largest antebellum plantation. The plantation was once nearly 30,000 acres and home to about 900 slaves.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865 — two-and-a-half years after after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — when Union troops occupied Galveston, Texas, and informed slaves they had been emancipated.
The newly freed slaves observed the date annually and coined the name Juneteenth.
At Stagville the day included historic cooking demonstrations, storytelling and dancing by the African American Dance Ensemble.
Demetrice Via brought to Juneteenth Keith and 14 others who participate a community program named Rise. Rise serves African American boys ages 7 to 12 and focuses on community service, life skills development and cultural awareness.
Via brought Keith and 14 others in the Rise program to show them what some African-Americans had to go through.
“I am hoping it will open their eyes,” said Via, 27, of Durham. “And they will be able to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented before them.”
She also hopes the trip instills a sense of pride about the obstacles African-Americans have overcome and an appreciation for the freedom they sometimes take for granted.
The lessons hit home for the young men, she said, when they heard stories of youth picking cotton, harvesting tobacco and making bricks.
“Little kids were out here doing manual labor,” she said. “You guys actually cry about washing dishes.”
Much of the Juneteenth celebration was held around an original set of houses built in the 1850s. Enslaved families lived in those homes before, during and after emancipation.
The freedom that followed emancipation was complicated, said Vera Cecelski, a guide at Stagville.
“There was resistance. Free people tried to push back against the control that slaveholders tried to exert over them even after formal slavery had ended,” said Cecelski, 25, of Durham.
Some of the former slaves moved toward what would become the City of Durham, while others stayed on the Stagville property. A black church and school were established. The Cameron family, which owned the plantation, continued its operation through sharecropping agreements, which kept many former slaves bound to their owners through debt.
Dontavius Williams is a historical actor who portrays a former slave named Adam who worked as a blacksmith on a South Carolina plantation. Williams said sharecropping was “slavery with a different name.” Former slaves had some freedom, they could leave if they wanted, but many stayed in the same houses they’d lived in during their slave days, reporting to the same overseers.
“In a sense it was freeing, but in another sense you were bound in another way. You were bound by fear,” said Williams, 34 of Edgemore, South Carolina. “Fear of a poor crop and fear of continuing to be in debt.”