Themes of deliverance from slavery, reparations for the horrendous institution, as well as the exalted flag of a black Civil War regiment trained locally to defeat traitorous Southern rebels hovered in my mind during Temple University’s “Juneteenth Celebration with Charles L. Blockson,” the preeminent scholar of Pennsylvania’s black history.
The founder and curator emeritus of the renowned Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection of rare books and memorabilia, etc. at Temple University headlined the event held on June 19, the day in 1865 when blacks in Texas were finally liberated after being held in bondage following the Civil War beyond the dates of legal emancipation decrees and laws.
“I’m still collecting,” said the Norristown native, Blockson, at age 85, to the large audience in Sullivan Hall’s expansive Feinstone Lounge above his renowned repository and who’s the author of a range of landmark black-history books before speaking about a variety of such topics, including Juneteenth.
Attended by such internationally recognized scholars as Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, chair of the Africology and African American Studies Department at Temple and mastermind of the Afrocentricity concept, the event was moderated by the curator of the Blockson collection, Dr. Diane D. Turner. It also commemorated the “400th Anniversary of the first documented arrival of captive Africans to the English North American colony of Virginia in 1619 and in celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the Still Family Reunion.”
Locally based in Philadelphia during the mid-19th-century, William Still was known as “the Father of the Underground Railroad” because he was the region’s primary conductor of safeguarding runaway slaves with the help of ex-slave Harriet Tubman and Quaker minister Lucretia Mott of Cheltenham who lived next to the sprawling Civil War facility, Camp William Penn, where the nation’s first federally-sanctioned black soldiers were trained.
A few of Blockson’s ancestors who fought in the war belonged to regiments from Camp William Penn where Still also operated one of his several enterprises, a commissary.
Ironically, Blockson noted the June 19 hearings in Washington concerning potential studies about whether descendants of enslaved Africans should receive reparations because of the government-sanctioned free labor and horrific crimes committed against their ancestors via the testimony of the outstanding scholar-author Ta-Nehisi Coates with Philadelphia roots.
“Reparations are warranted by the unjust taking of our labor for 246 years,” Dr. Asante told me in a follow-up email regarding such restitution and Juneteenth, positions that I absolutely support. “The stealing of our labor dispossessed us of many futures and has kept our population outside of the principal wealth of the nation. Let’s have the discussion, but let us also work for action.”
Asante, who’ve lived in Cheltenham Township, insisted too that “Juneteenth,” now a state commemoration with national aspirations via the leadership of the dynamic community activist Ronald Brown, “is important because it has become the one day, of all of the days after May 9, 1865 [when rebel forces surrendered], that has been most celebrated as a day of remembrance of what we endured. It is a ritual reinforcement not so much of what was done for us, but what we did for ourselves since nearly 200,000 served in the Civil War.”
In fact, almost 11,000 black soldiers in 11 regiments were trained locally at Cheltenham’s Camp William Penn and fought in just about every major battle from 1863 to 1865, as well as helped to track President Abraham Lincoln’s assassins and corner Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces at Appomattox, Va. — many of them ordered to Texas where they were eventually discharged.
One of the Camp William Penn regiments landing in Texas was the 127th USCT whose celebrated battle flag during the Juneteenth week was sold to the Atlanta History Center for almost $200,000, a development first reported to me by local historian William Chambres.
Designed and created by the illustrious black artist, David Bustill Bowser (who also painted portraits of President Lincoln and the anti-slavery martyr John Brown), the six-feet-wide and about four-feet-tall silk flag had been possessed by the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) Civil War Museum and Library in Philadelphia, in part led by Dr. Anthony Waskie, a Temple University professor in the Civil War and Emancipation Studies program.
Local historian and author David Harrower is writing a book about Bowser, also the designer of other battle flags representing Camp William Penn regiments, boldly revolutionizing American art based on his vivid images of black soldiers in battle killing white rebels, etc.
“Of course, I had had hopes that it would be purchased by an institution in Philadelphia, because of its local significance,” Harrower said, adding, though, in an email that even in Atlanta, “When visitors ‘discover’ the flag of the 127th U.S.C.T., they will encounter the patriotism and valor of the Men of Color who enlisted to serve their country, proudly led into battle by this flag, with its compelling message: ‘We Will Prove Ourselves Men.’”
And with that flag being the most expensive item ever bought by the Atlanta History Center and the dominance of Pennsylvania’s history by way of such standard-bearers as Charles Blockson, the centrality of African Americans’ struggles in our republic is finally being recognized.