June 15, 2022–When I first came to Texas, the day called “Juneteenth” bewildered me. Every time I asked what it signified, native Texans would mumble and turn away. I got the feeling it was a litmus test to screen “yankees,” in the same way no real Texan ever called it “San Antone,” put beans in their chili, or drank anything but Shiner.
Today, the entire United States has discovered this uniquely Texan celebration and put it on the Federal calendar.
But how many still get it wrong, the same way they think Cinco de Mayo is Mexican Independence Day?
I asked the man who knows. Clifton Fifer taught history at Peterson Middle School in Kerrville for 33 years, and now puts on historical interpretations of the history of Native Americans, Buffalo Soldiers, and the old west, using poetry, song, dance, spoken word, and artifacts. Many recognize him from his reenactments at the Pioneer Museum and Texas Heritage Days. He also plays a mean washtub bass.
Fifer is organizing and hosting a Blues Fest Juneteenth celebration at the Doyle School Community Center in Kerrville on Sunday, June 19, from 4-8 p.m.
So, what is Juneteenth?
“Juneteenth is Freedom Day,” Fifer said. “That’s the day the black slaves in Texas got the word that they were free. It happened on June 19, 1865, two years after emancipation. General Granger rode into Galveston with a group of soldiers, and they made the announcement there.”
The commemoration was more than a reason to drink another Shiner.
“It was not a barbecue or a party, it was education,” Fifer said. “Because these people had to be taught about voting and about how to live as free men, about possible jobs. They were free, but they had to start from nothing.”
Fifer noted that from that time, Juneteenth was only celebrated in Texas.
“It was a historical point in Texas,” he said. “With other people celebrating this, they may not even know the history. For some it’s just a holiday. For those whose ancestors went through it, they understand the importance of Juneteenth is about folks enduring to make life better for someone else.”
While Fifer emphasizes this event will be a Blues Music Festival, he promises to weave in talk about the significance of Juneteenth as well as the history of the Doyle community, Kerrville’s historically African-American district.
For example, Kerrville was a regular stopping point for blues musicians from Austin and San Antonio, on what was known as the Chitlin’ Circuit.
According to Fifer’s research, such luminaries as Fats Domino, BB King, Big Mama Thornton, the Ink Spots, and Gatemouth Brown played in the popular juke joints such as the Famous Door and the Pleasure Garden.
This was the era from the 1940s to early 1970s. Fifer tells how kids would climb the trees to see over the 8-foot fence for a glimpse of these famous musicians.
There’ll be no need to climb any trees at the Blues Fest. Just bring your own chair. The event is free and open to all, and local churches and organizations will be selling food and beverages and offering activities for kids.
I noted the official Federal holiday falls on Monday. In a bit of independence that lingers, Fifer replied, “We do it on the 19th because that’s the day that the emancipation was signed. And anytime we get a chance to celebrate on the 19th, that’s what we’re going to do.”
The Doyle School Community Center has been recently renovated, to better provide needed services and activities. They offer programs centered around Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month, Valentine’s Day Tea for the ladies, and family game nights. They also host a health clinic, driving services, a counselor, and ESL classes.
For Fifer, it’s all for one purpose: “We’re trying to keep our history alive.”
Details: The Blues Fest will be held on Sunday, June 19, 2022, from 4 to 8 p.m. at Doyle School Community Center, 110 West Barnett Street, Kerrville. The event is free. Call 830 257-4446 for information.