Rann Miller: Juneteenth Lessons From New Jersey

BY RANN MILLER | Guest Blogger AC JosepH Media

I had the pleasure of taking part in one of the many Juneteenth celebrations that happened all over the state of New Jersey this month with my family.

Although New Jersey is not Texas, Black Jerseyans celebrated as the first Texans did and like other Black folk around the country… we partied. We ate, drank, danced, supported numerous Black venders (selling everything from flavored skin scrubs to flavored sea moss), watched our children play in bouncy houses, playgrounds, on the basketball court and we also heard words of affirmation and empowerment.

I was humbled when asked to provide such words at the Glassboro Juneteenth event by powerhouse organizer, and friend, Myeesha Jones.

READ: Glassboro Juneteenth Celebration Gets Bigger. Better, By Adianna Alston

As a history teacher, I love teaching students about history concealed from us. As a Black history teacher, this is especially true when teaching Black student, whom I teach regularly. So, I began my brief talk teaching about Black history in South Jersey, through storytelling. I told the true story of Perry Simmons.

Simmons was an ex-enslaved African who escaped and found his way to Timbuctoo; a Black free settlement outside of Mt. Holly in Burlington County. By 1860, the population of free Black people in South Jersey grew from 5,524 (in 1840) people to 9,853; a percent growth of 78% versus 13% in North Jersey.

Some of those settlement included Guineatown in Salem County, Gouldtown and Springtown in Cumberland County, Small Gloucester and Cootstown in Gloucester County, Saddlertown and Lawnside (formerly Snowhill and later Freehaven) in Camden County (my home county), and last, but not least, Timbuctoo in Burlington County.

Simmons lived there for 10 years before an attempt was made to recapture him by a famed captor of the enslaved, George Alberti, along with the help of a Black man named Caleb Wright. It can be safely assumed that this man was a trader to the Black folks in Timbuctoo.

Both men, along with 6 to 8 others from Camden and Philadelphia, traveled to the home of Simmons and his family late on a Saturday night and held them captive. That is until their cries for help were heard by a teenage boy who alerted the residents of Timbuctoo.

Those residents found whatever weapons at their disposal and scared off the men looking to return Simmons back to slavery. The barrel of Simmons gun kept those captors at bay while trapped in their attic but it was the people of Timbuctoo that saved the day. Soon after, Simmons and his family left and were never heard from again.

After telling the story, it was my desire to share what takeaways we could apply in our anti-Black society that is attacking the rights of all citizens. Here were the takeaways I shared:

  1. Will always have opposition from amongst us, but never let that prevent you from helping and receiving help from your brother and your sister. Caleb Wright sold Perry Simmons and his family out. He was skinfolk, not kinfolk, but the rest of Timbuctoo came out for Perry and his family.

What is of grave importance isn’t Caleb Wright’s betrayal, but rather the rest of the Black folk who came through once they found out what was going on. The lesson: although Tim Scotts exist, they are the exception and not the rule. We can lean on each other. Therefore…

  • We never make it on our own… there is always someone who helps us along the way. Perry Simmons didn’t make it out alive without the help of the people of Timbuctoo. Perry wasn’t unarmed. He had a weapon. But he didn’t have enough bullets for all the men and the men had guns. He knew he needed help and he and his folks called out for help all night until they got it. He knew his gun wasn’t enough. We’ve got to realize that our smarts, our money, our possessions, our degrees, our weapons… they aren’t enough. Sometimes, you need the people to support you. Again, we can lean on each other.
  • We must defend ourselves own. We must defend ourselves from the dangers of an anti-Black society. All other socially constructed categories come second to being Black in an anti-Black society. Our Blackness is the only necessary reason why we’re killed on traffic stops, in supermarkets or in our churches, why our vote is actively being taken away, why our children receive a sub quality education, and why we died due to COVID disproportionately.

Timbuctoo came to defend Perry Simmons because they understood if not, Perry and his family would be dead. We must stop talking about each other in front of mixed company. We must keep confrontations amongst each other. This isn’t about respectability politics, this is about regard for our Black humanity. Defend it well.

  • We must know when to stay and when to move; choosing to do either for the collective benefit of the people.  After the town saved Simmons, he and his family were never heard from ever again. Leaving kept their family and the town safe. Sometimes, we may have to leave to keep ourselves and other safe. In other cases, we must stay to help make our communities stronger.
  • I am sure Timbuctoo was a great place to be, but had Simmons stayed, he was putting himself and his family in danger if Alberti came back with even more men. In these United States, battles won are not a down payment on victories in war. We must always keep our head on a swivel.
  • Lastly, we must stay ready. As the saying goes, there is no need to get ready when you stay ready. Stay ready with your money, your passport, your mind, your arsenal, and in your faith. Those folks in Timbuctoo didn’t have to get ready because early on a Sunday morning, they got into action and marched to the farmhouse Perry Simmons was staying at and they were ready for that action.

Currently, there is a shortage on baby formula, there’s now a shortage on tampons, wages are still low, gas is high, and the rent is still too damn high. The Middle East, China and Latin America use to be 3rd world, but they’ve put they’ve purchased the second world and put a firm down payment on the first. Controlling your resources will control your world. Meanwhile Democracy in the United States has been on layaway since 1776… My brothers and sisters, I say to you, stay ready.

Gen. Granger’s announcement did declare freedom for all. Africans in Kentucky and Delaware remain enslaved until December of 1865 with passage of the 13th amendment and even with the 13th amendment, Black people, to this day, can be enslaved when in prison. All this to say that our freedom is always under threat and is dependent upon our being awakened.

We live in a nation where the rights and privileges that our elders, some of our living elders, fought for on the indigenous land our ancestors built by way of their labor, are being taken from us. Laws that gerrymander or outright take away our vote, prevent protesting, prevent the accurate teaching of history in schools, all while failing to arrest the leaders of a white supremacist attempt to take over the government due to their fear of a multiracial democracy.

Let Juneteenth be a reminder that like during the antebellum, our liberation will to require our testimony, our organizing, and our blood, so stay ready.

 Bio: Rann Miller directs the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey. He spent years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. He is the creator, writer, and editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @UrbanEdDJ

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