In time of protests, Valley to celebrate Juneteenth

SAN BENITO — Lonnie Davis remembers “the talk” his family gave him as a boy.

As the Rio Grande Valley’s African American community plans to celebrate Juneteenth, Davis reflected on the national protests stemming from the death of George Floyd, the 46-year-old black man who died of asphyxiation May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.

“Every black man in America over 30 years old had that talk,” Davis, 76, a Harlingen businessman, said. “It was how to act around white men — ‘Try to stay away from them as much as you can, become invisible, thank you, no sir, thank you please.’”

“If a black boy and a white boy do the same thing, he would talk to the white boy but he would try to hurt the black boy,” Davis said, referring to the symbolic white man. “And if you sass, he could hurt you bad or kill you — because he could get away with it.”

On Friday, the San Benito Historical Society plans to open the doors of the new Callandret Black History Museum to celebrate Juneteenth, which commemorates the June 19, 1865, Union soldiers’ landing in Texas to announce the end of slavery — more than two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

“Juneteenth really meant something as a holiday,” Davis said. “Of course, things have changed. I appreciate the progress. I love progress. But I’m afraid to be optimistic. Would you ever have thought that in 2020 we’d still be marching in the streets even though we’ve had a black president?”

In February, the historical society opened the museum to honor Joe and Fannie Callandret, on whose land the San Benito school district built a brick two-room school to educate the area’s African American children on the edge of the El Jardin barrio.

Across the street, Linda Brock is proud the museum honoring her grandparents will help celebrate Juneteenth.

“It’s freedom,” Brock, 68, a former nurse, said of the holiday her family’s celebrated since she was a child.

But more than 150 years later, African Americans continue their struggle.

“A life was taken — nobody deserves something like that,” Brock said, referring to Floyd’s death. “I would like not to be afraid for yourself and your family.”

Like Davis, Brock condemned protests that turned violent.

“I just wish it could be peaceful and no one would get hurt,” she said.

Marching in solidarity

In McAllen, Theresa Gatling plans to celebrate Juneteenth as part of Village in the Valley, a nonprofit group connecting African Americans with other minorities.

On Friday, Gatling plans to ride in a caravan with Mayor Jim Darling, who’s set to oversee McAllen’s Juneteenth Proclamation at its City Hall.

“Juneteenth is a celebration — this is when we were all finally free,” said Gatling, a physical therapist who serves as chairwoman of Village in the Valley. “It was two-and-half-years after that slaves in Texas found out they were free — and didn’t know it. Black people continued working as slaves for two-and-a-half years without knowing.”

Today’s protests mark African Americans’ long struggle, she said.

“Yes, there’s been huge progress towards equality,” she said. “We have so many opportunities that opened to us.”

“Obviously, with the protests going on, there’s still this discussion about race,” she said. “The protests are a response to all the social injustice black people see in their skin every day. It’s a perfect time to show people, ‘Yes, there’s still injustice.’”

Behind the protests, she said, many Americans are marching in solidarity.

“The protests are a symbol that we are becoming more tolerant,” Gatling said. “It’s been refreshing to see so many people of so many races coming together. It’s very hopeful seeing everybody’s fighting for the same thing — for equal rights and reform.”