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Juneteenth: A Conversation with Joe Conway, Wilmington's Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer

The Juneteenth flag, commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S., flies in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, June 17, 2020.
Nati Harnik/Associated Press
The Juneteenth flag, commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S., flies in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, June 17, 2020.

Today is Juneteenth, commemorating the day the U.S. Army delivered the news of freedom to the last enslaved people in Texas, two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. This is the first year Wilmington has celebrated Juneteenth an official city holiday. WHQR’s Ben Schachtman sat down with Joe Conway, the city’s chief equity officer, to talk about the holiday’s importance.


BS: So, Joe Conway, thank you for being here, and to start, I gotta say, I still run into people, on a fairly regular basis, around this time of year, who don’t know what Juneteenth is.

Joe Conway: Yeah.

BS: Or maybe they do kind of have a sense of what it is. But they had to Google it, they've just heard about it in the last couple years.

JC: Yeah.

BS: So I'm just curious, what is – what is your personal experience with Juneteenth?

JC: So, I'll be honest with you, Ben, I didn't know what Juneteenth was either until about 2012, is when I discovered what it was. And I fully didn't understand what really took place. I don't necessarily blame or look down on people that may not understand what it is or why it's so significant or why it's important.

I think, once you hear it, you have an obligation, I mean, either going to engage, you're going to ignore it some more. But then you're not going to understand the colors of the flag. You know, it's not Pan-African — I know a lot of Pan-African flags come out this time of year around Juneteenth — but that's not the Juneteenth flag, the Juneteenth flag is red, white, and blue. And I think that's something else that we need to understand, we're getting at the root of who America is, and what happened.

And why did it take two years for Texas to finally find out there, the African Americans and Black folks that live there to find out, 'hey, you're free'? Well, one is because Texas didn't want it, they didn't want it at all, they didn't even want to tell them about it, they barred a lot of the information coming in and even when our good general [Gen. Gordon Granger] shows up, there is a little bit of resistance, but you know, he's got an army behind them. So it's — it's a little bit more convincing.

BS: Okay, so after a lot of work by you and your team at the City of Wilmington, Juneteenth is a holiday. That's kind of a signal and an opportunity to learn about this — for a lot of people — lesser known chapter of history. But why is that important?

JC: So I think what we as folks need to do, you know, I don't mean to bring this up — oh, yeah, I do — But our school systems, right, and we know that they're under attack, as far as history is concerned. We're trying to write history. And I don't mean, w-r-i-t-e, I mean r-i-g-h-t, we're trying to get the most accurate thing that we have. And you would figure that's what we want. But that's under attack. So when we start hearing these nuances of history that we didn't get [before], we kind of, you know, why are we hearing this now? And is this true? We got all these questions as people — good questions — I think each of us has a responsibility to go figure out what the answer to those questions are.

But Juneteenth is one of these things that Americans definitely need to understand. You need to understand that there's an entire population of people that didn't get the good news. For crying out loud two months before Juneteenth, in fact, I believe it was in February or March of, you know, 1865, in Wilmington, the African Americans in Wilmington got the information. So here we are, where we're just now finding out, and then of course, you know, Texas finds out in June and it's the last road, you know. The other thing to understand about Juneteenth, too, is that not all of the states at that particular moment in time were no longer enslaved — it was specifically tied, the Emancipation specifically tied it to the Confederate States, the states that fought in the Civil War. So in other areas, slavery was still going on like nobody's business. And it wasn't until the 13th Amendment, that abolished all slavery, that we finally "Okay, now everybody's free, no matter what state you're in."

So yeah, take the opportunity to educate, take the opportunity to know, I don't blame you. I don't think any of us should be blamed if we don't know about it. And then now I think the greater question is: what are you gonna do about it? It's a new holiday. What are you going to do to learn more about Juneteenth, we're going to do more to participate in the celebrations around town. Where are you gonna tell your kids, you know, about this particular holiday? Do you really understand the significance of the Juneteenth flag? Do you? Do you understand the starburst? Do you understand all of the impacts what those colors mean, and what the symbolism means? Because it stands for American history. And I think we should not forget that.

BS: Here's my big takeaway. When I learned about Juneteenth — which like I said, was only a couple of years ago, a few years ago now — and a Black friend of mine explained it. He said, "Well, this is Black Independence Day." And then he kind of stopped himself said, "You know what, actually, no, it's just Independence Day. Because if you live in the United States, and not everyone was free —

JC: Correct.

BS: — then you're not actually living up to the ideals of the United States. The United States became more itself on Juneteenth."

JC: Yes, yes. Yes, I cannot add anything or take anything away from that because I agree with that. It is a reckoning of the Emancipation Proclamation, the fulfillment of it. However, it is not the end of the story.

BS: So that's, that's my follow up, right, is that I've also had feminist scholars tell me, "Well, actually, the real American Independence Day was in August, 1920," when suffrage passed, the 19th amendment passed, and then I have people tell me, "Actually no, the real American Independence Day was Stonewall, when a bunch of black trans people beat the crap out of a very corrupt NYPD for their right to exist." And I'm sure there will be other events in the future people will say, "Okay, now, right now we've hit that mark." But I think to your point, it's these incremental steps where we are — and maybe it's half steps to the wall, Joe, I don't know — but I feel like that's history. History is not like my old high school history book, which said, "slavery, bad. Emancipation Proclamation. Great. Martin Luther King — fixed it." The book kind of just ended right after that.

JC: Yeah.

BS: So I think learning about Juneteenth is learning about American history. It's learning, but it's learning about a process, not a fixed point in time where we flipped the switch,

JC: Beautifully stated, I was I was about to go there. Because Simon Sinek has a great quote. In fact, he was speaking to an audience. And those of you don't know, Simon Sinek is he's just an optimist. He actually mentions something that's visionary and founding to all of us as Americans, that we, as men and women, we're all created equal. We've actually penned that into legal documents. But that's a visionary statement. So it speaks to this incrementalism in the fact that we haven't quite gotten there yet. But we're gonna trying. You're gonna have populations that rise up and say, This is not fair. You're still treating me less than. And until we get to that point where we really embody, and we practice, and we hold ourselves accountable to all men are created equal — and I know that's what it says, we probably need to update that document,. from a DEI standpoint — but at the end of the day, we are not there. But you know, what, whether it's half step, quarter step, full steps and sometimes we take steps back — in the current political climate that we're in right now — but I think as long as we keep moving, we're doing what Americans do.

BS: Alright. Joe Conway, chief of equity and inclusion for the City of Wilmington, and we should add a WHQR board member, thank you so much for your time.

JC: Thank you, Ben. Appreciate you

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.