William Gould fled his bondage in Wilmington with seven other slaves in 1862, rowing 28 miles down the Cape Fear River, raising sail only when they reached the ocean and the safety of the Union blockade.
He joined the U.S. Navy and chased Confederate ships all over the Atlantic, learning of the war’s end while off the coast of Spain, writing in his diary, “I heard the Glad Tidings that the Stars and Stripes had been planted.”
As North Carolina celebrates Juneteenth this week, pausing to recognize the end of slavery, Gould stands as a symbol of its complicated history.
He toiled as a plasterer in downtown Wilmington, not on a plantation. He did not wait for the Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil War’s end. He ended his own servitude.
‘Take a critical eye’
As Juneteenth gains more mainstream acceptance, with more than a dozen events in the Triangle alone, the state seeks to tell slavery’s entire story while joining a celebration that Black communities have long observed.
“This is an opportunity to really take a critical eye,” said Angela Thorpe, director of the N.C. African American Heritage Commission. “What did bondage look like across our state and how can we honor people being released or releasing themselves?”
Last week, the Latta Plantation outside Charlotte sparked nationwide outrage when it promoted a $25 event on Juneteenth featuring “white refugees” where “the overseer is now out of a job.”
That event has since been canceled and Mecklenburg County officials closed Latta Plantation until further notice.
In contrast, Stagville Plantation outside Durham is holding “emancipation tours” on the property that once housed nearly 1,000 slaves, where the work to educate visitors about their lives goes on year-round.
At the Capitol in downtown Raleigh, visitors can make chalk drawings of the Juneteenth flag and draw portraits or write the names of former slaves.
Raleigh’s Pope House Museum tells the story of Dr. Thomas Manassa Pope, the only Black man to run for mayor in the Jim Crow era. On Saturday, visitors can see the 1851 certificate of freedom papers belonging to Pope’s father, Jonas.
For Ernest Dollar, director of Raleigh’s City and Pope House museums, the holiday remains a balancing act between celebrating emancipation and educating the state about its darkest chapters.
“We also need to consider what freedom meant and how that was endangered for the next 100 years,” Dollar said. “Lastly, we might ask ourselves this week, why has it taken 156 years to collectively celebrate the end of human bondage in America?”
Juneteenth stands for June 19, 1865, the day enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned that the Civil War had ended and their freedom was ensured.
Though it took place in Texas, the Union troops who brought the news told of Confederate surrenders in Virginia and North Carolina — giving the state a direct connection.
New federal holiday
On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday.
While celebrations have increased in recent years, fueled by the Black Lives Matter movement, Thorpe and Dollar stressed that Juneteenth events are decades-old. The Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas dates to the mid-1990s.
Along with Stagville, Somerset Place in Washington County will instruct visitors Saturday on the end of slavery on one of the state’s largest plantations. When emancipation came in 1865, nearly all enslaved workers departed.
Across the state, even the word plantation is being shaken off. Some in the North Raleigh development have protested Wakefield Plantation’s name, and a change.org petition remains online.
Thorpe, who spoke at a Juneteenth event Thursday at Tryon Palace in New Bern, notes that slavery’s demise came even as the Civil War began in 1861. Freedmen’s colonies cropped up around the Outer Banks on both Roanoke and Hatteras islands.
“This is self-emancipation,” she said. “It’s not coming from an annoucement or a notice. It’s important to think beyond the plantation. It’s celebrating the transition out of some of those darkest realities.”