Carl Schwarz woke up on June 19, 1865 facing another day of hard work on his farm. He had recently established himself in the town of Lebanon, Wisconsin and lived there with his wife Martha and six children, ranging in age from 1 to 11 years old. He owned 40 acres of arable land and many acres of marsh, which he and his family started to drain by digging deep ditches. They kept cows and sheep, which could graze on the drained marshland, as well as chickens and bees. They were subsistence farmers.
Perhaps Carl spent this day feeding livestock or mending fences. Perhaps he was occupied with tending crops or repairing equipment. He likely performed all of these tasks. He was a 35-year-old farmer with a family to support. He had been born in Germany in 1830 and had immigrated to the United States along with his father, stepmother, and stepsister when he was 18. He had met his wife, gotten married, and was living the life of a good German Lutheran farmer, alongside other German Lutheran farmers in rural Wisconsin.
Carl was my great-great-grandfather. I have no idea what he thought of slavery, the Civil War, or emancipation. I don’t know if he identified himself as white or just as German. Based on attitudes common at the time and in the area where he lived, it is quite likely that he disagreed with slavery and yet held Black people in contempt, beneath people like him.
I am certain that on June 19, 1865, he had no idea that the final people who had been enslaved in his adopted country were freed in Texas. It had no impact on his life. The Civil War had ended a month prior, and most likely, in his mind, his adopted nation was back on the path to peace. He kept living his life as a farmer. Several years later, Carl’s wife Martha passed away and he married a woman named Wilhelmina, my great-great-grandmother. She passed away and he remarried again, to Ida. Between all 3 of his wives, Carl had 16 children. As he got older, most of his children moved off to start their own farms and their own families elsewhere. Carl passed his land down to his son Henry, who took up running the farm. Carl lived on there until his death in 1922.
Henry and his wife Anna raised 9 children on the farm, living life much as Carl had, over time adding innovations like indoor plumbing, motorized tractors, and electricity. I would imagine that Henry heard the news of school desegregation, of the bus boycotts in the South, but these events had no impact on his life. Most likely, in his mind, they were far-away abstractions. Henry passed the farm on to his own son, William, and lived there until he died in 1960.
William was my grandfather. He and my grandmother, Eldora, had 5 children. They kept the farm running, although William at times had to work factory jobs as well to make ends meet. I am sure they heard news of “welfare queens”, of the War on Drugs, of “law and order”. Most likely, in their minds, these were distractions from the day-to-day life of running their farm. I have fond memories of gatherings at the farm, where my cousins, my aunts and uncles, and my immediate family would come to visit my grandparents for Christmas, summer picnics, and family celebrations. William and Eldora lived on the farm until their retirement in 1999, when I was 23. They sold the farm outside of their family because none of their children saw themselves as farmers or could find a way to make a living there.
Slavery, the Civil War, and emancipation can seem a long time ago, especially to us white people. What impact could those events still have now? But the first Juneteenth — June 19, 1865 — happened during the life of my grandfather’s grandfather. The land that my great-great-grandfather farmed was the land where I celebrated with my family throughout my childhood. The land that my great-great-grandfather obtained and passed down as an inheritance for his family was the land that funded my own father’s college education. At the same time, the ability to inherit or even purchase such land was denied to the formerly enslaved people of this nation.
I don’t begrudge my family what they had, and I don’t blame them for having it. But I do condemn this society that made it possible for them to own that land when it did everything possible to deny land to Black people. I do condemn this society that makes it so difficult for the rural and urban poor to obtain quality education or sustaining jobs. I condemn all the ways that our society marginalizes people according to their race, social class, gender, sexual orientation, and other aspects of our identities.
Given that our society operates in these ways, I understand why my ancestors did not know about Juneteenth. They were trying to live their lives and their society told them that Black people’s lives did not matter to their own. They did not see the humanity of the black citizens who lived in this nation alongside them. But we are still told the same lie today — that the lives of Black people do not matter; we are told that Black people are bringing their problems on themselves, that they need to work harder. And too many of us white people believe the lie. We think, consciously or subconsciously, that the few Black people that we know are the exceptions…that the Black people in the “inner city” need to make different choices, need to be better educated. But in reality, it is we white people who need to be better educated about the history of our country, about the interconnected nature of our lives, and about how the same disregard and prejudice applied to Black people harms white people, too. Not to the same degree, but it harms us as well.
This disregard is what allows us to underfund public education both in Black urban communities and white small towns like Lebanon, Wisconsin, where my family used to live. This disregard is what allows us to strip jobs from both Black urban communities and white small towns. This disregard is what allows drug crises to flourish in Black urban communities and white small towns. Of course, the reactions to these crises in these distinct communities are different. More lip service is paid to helping the white communities. The people in the white communities have the ability, by virtue of their white skin, to gain opportunities and avoid harms that those in the Black communities cannot. But though the degree of disregard is different, the disregard negatively impacts both communities today.
Carl Schwarz, my great-great-grandfather, was not aware of Juneteenth, and I do not celebrate it, because it is not a day for white people. But I do recognize it. I recognize that we white people must educate ourselves about the traumas of slavery and the resilience of Black people to rise above them, and to understand how close they are to our time. I recognize that I must teach my child what Juneteenth means for the past and what it means that we must do in the future. I recognize that we white people must learn more of our own history, more Black history, more of all peoples’ histories and how those histories entwine with one another. I recognize that if we white people could only acknowledge the traumas that people like us inflicted in the past, we could start to get past them, and to heal the disregard that affects all of us. And then maybe we could move past that disregard to implement policies and practices that actually support working people in this country — Black, white, Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern — all of us.
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