Leek Creek’s Juneteenth

By: Marilyn Gross, mother of TPW Americas East Managing Director Leslie Gross

It started on ranchland where cows and horses grazed. The graves were dug by hand, not machinery. It was the labor of newly freed slaves, building a community of self-sufficiency. Ancestors talked of these burials at family gatherings filled with folktales and moral teachings. They passed on these genealogical chapters as part of a larger liberation story based in Texas soil. We only know of its existence today because we learned long ago to be the guardians of our own history.

As time passed, the forefathers marked graves with large rocks that bore no names. Cedar trees were then used as markers, which grew quite large and were eventually cut down. One of Leek Creek’s community members, Carrie “Lulu” Hanks Sheppard, daughter of Leroy Hanks, remembered what her father had said, “do not move the rock, each rock represented a burial place.” Each memory bore tribute to struggle.

My childhood memories of Leek Creek are of a place that has since been proclaimed an East Texas “freedom colony” (the all African American community known as Bivins – Leek Creek #2). Leek Creek #2 was founded by ex-slaves from Georgia plantations and distinguished itself from Bivins #1, the white community where the U.S. Post Office was located.

My parents built their home in the small town adjacent to Leek Creek (as their parents had before them). We lived near a small park and playground at the end of my street, which housed the site of the annual Juneteenth picnic. It lasted all day and well into the night, just steps from where newly freed slaves had staked their equality birthright.

Juneteenth’s dawn would reveal a gentleman affectionately known as “Big Willie” (yes, he was large and beneficiary of his excellent culinary skills) donning his apron and stoking the fires of his many barbecue grills to launch the festivities…Community members would arrive, one after the other, with ice and a multitude of sides. The addition of public address systems and music were just icing on the cake.…by mid afternoon and certainly by dusk, Juneteenth was in full swing.

Bringing Past to Present

In line with our family’s philanthropy, I champion that liberation story as Secretary of Leek Creek’s St. Paul Cemetery Historical Committee. My grandfather, Robert Lavert, a carpenter by trade, was the designer and builder of the last incarnation of Leek Creek’s church. Our campaign to preserve the spirit of Juneteenth as embodied by Leek Creek is just beginning. We’ve earned an historical designation for the cemetery from the state of Texas and are in the process of acquiring the same for St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, as well as the whole freedmen community.

From the Approved TX Historical Marker Application:

The historic Cemetery Designation Committee has done extensive research on the St.Paul/Leek Creek (also known as #2) Cemetery. Our research goes beyond the Civil War and The Emancipation Proclamation. According to our ancestors, the cemetery started in the early 1850s. First, three ex-slaves saw a need to establish a place for worship, school, and cemetery use. Then in 1891, Boss Rambo, Scott Davidson, and Cuff Thomas bought four acres of land from F.M.Finley. The cemetery as it exists right now is at least 130 years old, although according to our ancestors, the cemetery had its origins in the early 1850s.

For example, earlier graves were of slaves who were buried in a shallow place. Many of these graves were unmarked. Caretakers talked of skeletal parts unearthed as they dug new graves. Often skeletons came apart with no indication of a casket enclosing them. Caretakers carefully placed the skeletons back into their original site. Many elders of the community, during the mid 20th century, namely Johnny Reeves, Leroy Hanks, Lloyd Willis, Zan Mathews, Sol Mitchell, Lewis Mitchell, Clayton Roquemore, and B,.D. Roquemore served as caretakers of the cemetery.

History of Juneteenth

Juneteenth marks our country’s second Independence Day. In spite of the holiday’s recent federal recognition (on June 17, 2021) its genesis remains largely unknown. President Abraham Lincoln didn’t actually free “all” of the approximately four million men, women, and children held in slavery in the U.S. when he signed the formal Emancipation Proclamation in January, 1862 and announced its’ issuance on September 22. The document applied only to enslaved people in the Confederacy or under Confederate control and not to those in border states, which experienced some degree of Union control.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at the Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, but slavery remained relatively unaffected in Texas. Texas slaves continued bound emancipation’s secret until U.S. General Gordon Granger stood on Galveston, TX soil (an island city on the Gulf Coast of Texas) on June 19th 1865 and read General Orders #3, which proclaimed “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States of America ALL slaves are free . .. (as a fit and necessary war measure.”)

Many slaves had fled to Texas earlier, somewhat comforted by the absence of large scale fighting or troop presence, although slavery continued. After the close of war in the spring of 1865 – 250,000 slaves were freed. It appears that many were held uninformed until after harvest season…

On December 6, 1865 slavery was formally abolished by the 13th Amendment. While the 13th Amendment had been in full effect long before, slave masters, especially those who dwelled in western border states, simply chose not to tell their slaves that they were free. Cudjoe Lewis, last survivor of the Middle Passage (of the Waterford Plantation in St. Charles Parish, LA) spoke of working on the plantation years after the abolishment of slavery because he was technically not a citizen, having been kidnapped from West Africa decades after chattel slavery had been outlawed.

Juneteenth is known by many names including Manumission Day, Liberation Day and Jubilee Day.

Juneteenth Today

According to Texas Monthly’s barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn, multiple 19th century newspapers reported that entire communities gathered at a barbecue pit to prepare food and eat together, annually (continuing today in some form) on June 19, as occurred in Leek Creek and throughout Cass County.

Today, Juneteenth is a time for family reunions, community celebrations, and Watch Night Church services (first celebrated on Freedom’s Eve – for some -Dec 31, 1862). For Texas slaves.
such a celebration was, initially, premature. Subsequently, midnight of June 18th became a time when Blacks would come together to celebrate in churches and private homes across the nation, celebrating the arrival of news that final freedom had arrived.

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