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On Juneteenth, Valley residents share history of African Americans in Arizona

Friday is Juneteenth – learn the history behind the holiday
Posted at 5:00 AM, Jun 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-19 15:03:43-04

TEMPE, AZ — The city of Tempe has declared June 19 a city holiday in honor of Juneteenth.

The day commemorates June 19, 1865, when enslaved African Americans finally heard about the abolition of slavery.

The 1865 date is largely symbolic, as President Abraham Lincoln had actually issued the Emancipation Proclamation more than two years prior, on Jan. 1, 1863. It declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free,” according to the National Archives.

Click here to read the full Emancipation Proclamation.

Valley residents are using the day to educate others about the history of African Americans in Arizona.

In 2008, the Tempe History Museum created an African American Advisory Committee.

Chair of the committee Michelle Brooks-Totress says it was established after the founder noticed their history was absent in the museum.

"We find if we don't tell our story, we don't educate people...they don't know our contribution," she said.

Members of the committee shared with ABC15 their experiences of living in the Valley in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

"It was segregated," founding member Arthur Reeves Sr. said. "As a matter of fact, I bought my home in '71. There were people who would ask the neighbors if it was OK for an African American to move in to the neighborhood."

Before that time, Brooks-Totress says African Americans were barred from not only buying homes, but just being in Tempe.

"It was a sundown town," she said. "That basically means if you were Black and the sun went down, you needed to be out of Tempe."

Photos in the Tempe History Museum show Tempe Beach Park was off-limits to African Americans for over three decades. They couldn't live in the dorms or eat in the school cafeteria.

Vera Brooks, a member of the committee, says she faced similar problems while living in Scottsdale.

"Police would see us going home and they would trail us," she said.

But the committee is now focused on sharing their accomplishments. They put together a book, given to schools throughout Tempe, detailing their contributions.

Clottee Hammons is an artist whose exhibition, Great Migration: Indiscernibles in Arizona, was on display for the public at Heritage Square prior to COVID-19 restrictions.

She says the exhibition places African American Arizonans in the historic narrative and highlights the impact they had on the state's economy while facing racism and isolation.

"That is not something you hear in this state when you are studying Arizona history," Hammons said. "It is incumbent on all Americans to learn about the history of the people that essentially built the wealth of this country."

Hammons holds a literary marathon every year, called the "Emancipation Marathon." According to the event's Facebook page, "Volunteers read aloud about 'that peculiar institution,' American Chattel Slavery in honor of those African victims."

This year, because of COVID-19, the event will be held online on June 27.

For more information about future events to honor Juneteenth, visit the Tempe History Museum.