The month of June symbolizes different things to different people. To some, it is the start of a hot summer! To others, it’s midway through the year. To me, it’s a month of great reflection and a wide range of emotions. Among all of the emotions, joy, sadness, and hope are what I think of most. As a trans-racial adoptee into a Caucasian family, I did not grow up with much of an orientation toward my own heritage. In fact, without exposure to diversity, I grew up assuming I was Caucasian!
Recently, within the last few years, one holiday I became familiar with in my journey of self-discovery was Juneteenth. In case you have not heard of it, the holiday is also known as Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, or most notably Emancipation Day. This was the day that enslaved people celebrated their freedom. Traditionally Juneteenth is celebrated on June 19th. On that day in 1865, Union General Gordon Granger declared emancipation in Galveston, Texas, concluding the campaign to end chattel slavery nationwide. Today, African-Americans, among other groups, celebrate this day as an important milestone in the journey toward freedom and progress. Out of blissful ignorance, I was not aware of the term Juneteenth or much of African-American history before, during, or after slavery—let alone that this was part of my history!
One night in October 2014, I sat down with my brother on the couch to watch television. My mother walked in and said, “You know Jonathan, you should try to use Facebook to look for your birth father.” I responded that I would look into it as I glanced back toward the television. Although our adoption was closed, there were pieces of information I knew about my birth parents. For example, I knew my birth father was African-American, I even knew his name and general location; however, I had never been successful at finding him. I opened Facebook and browsed a few pages in the search feature. My mother came back over to the couch and noticed a man who bore a resemblance to me. So I reached out to him with little thought and certainly no expectations.
Within 10 minutes, he responded, “Son, I have been praying for this day since the day I let you go.” Little did I know this message would start my own journey of self-discovery. Not too long after, I finally got to meet my birth father and develop a strong friendship with him, which led to meeting my birth mother as well. Apparently, the two of them had kept in communication over the years. So what does this have to do with Juneteenth? Well, it nuanced what it meant to be African-American, in other words…It just got real! Fascinated, I took an Ancestory.com test. The results connected me with many relatives, and I instantly got acquainted with new stories. I’ve learned some notable and interesting facts about my family history.
Anthony P. Crawford was born in Abbeville, South Carolina, in January of 1865, before emancipation and before the 13th amendment being codified into law. He was enslaved to Ben and Rebecca Crawford upon his birth. According to all who knew him, he was considered a king of a man. At the time of his death, he owned over 427 acres of cotton land. One day, in the fall of 1916, Mr. Crawford went to town to sell cotton seed. He got into an argument with a white man over prices and was thrown in the town jail. Word got around town of Mr. Crawfords “uppityness,” and a mob of about 400 angry residents gathered, beat him, and dragged him to the fairgrounds. Once there, they lynched him and riddled his body with over 200 bullets. Initially, the Crawfords were forbidden to recover Mr. Crawford’s body. The town wanted to make a statement.
Shortly after the incident, the Crawford family in Abbeville was then chased out of the state, and their land was seized. This economically, socially, and emotionally devastated the Crawford family for generations; however, it could not keep them away from each other for long. Every year, when the Crawford family gathers, a large picture of “Grandpa Crawford” is commemorated by his descendants. The picture was taken just 6 years before Mr. Crawford was lynched. In October of 2016,100 years after the lynching, Bryon Stevenson, founder of Equal Justice Initiative and author of the best-selling Just Mercy, visited Abbeville as the Crawford family gathered. With the support of the Crawford family, he erected a pillar in remembrance of Anthony Crawford. Family members were invited to collect soil from the site of the lynching and place it in a jar. This was part of Bryan Stevenson’s Community Remembrance Project.
Last year, in 2020, when I met my cousin, he sent me some pictures of my grandmother. Unfortunately, she passed long before I was born, but Floree Crawford was a very beautiful woman. Yes, it was through my cousin that I learned about Anthony P. Crawford. He was Floree’s great-uncle. Today I can celebrate Juneteenth with my Crawford cousins and commemorate the life of Anthony Crawford with his descendants. Together we can lament our loss while celebrating his legacy.
As a transracial adoptee, I now know that I have been woven into a larger narrative connected to living history. Juneteenth isn’t an idea or a set of values, it’s a day to acknowledge these lived experiences, process them and learn from them. In spite of the devastating impact of the Jim Crow era, African-Americans all over the country celebrate Juneteenth as freedom from enslavement and hope for a better future. Having the opportunity to be oriented to one’s heritage provides a new dynamic, a role in a larger ethnic narrative. Ethnicity, in a nutshell, is the way we do things, traditions, values, and beliefs passed down from one generation to another. In fact, to participate in your ethnic narrative nuances your own lived experience opening the door to a household of true integration, resisting the convenience of monocultural assimilation.
The benefits of allowing adopted children to explore and discover their heritage are many. They get the opportunity to be immersed in a new and unique world. If you’re a prospective adoptive parent or the parent of a transracial adoptee, it is important to help orient your child to their heritage because of the power their roots possess. The details belong to their being. Sometimes, it could mean learning about uncomfortable things seared into a cultural memory. Likewise, it could mean the discovery of beauty, uniqueness, and distinctiveness are something to be proud of. And a layer of identity acknowledged with every new detail. For me, this has led to great sorrow as well as great hope: a reckoning of truth with truth. I think of God’s enduring love, which is able to stand through the ages, taking broken things and transforming them. This brings to mind a song I learned of not too many years ago:
“Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet,
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered;
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might, led us into the light,
Keep us forever on the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee.
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.
Beautiful hymn. Oh, the title? The author? Well, I will let you discover the rest!