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'Our History Was Muddled': A Conversation About Juneteenth In South Florida

Constance Ekon, also known as Queen Mother Boatenmaa, greets Dorothy McDuffie, right, Firestine McDuffie, middle, and Femi Folami Browne.

Juneteenth commemorates the day emancipation reached enslaved people in the deepest parts of the South.

It wasn't until June 19, 1865, two months after the end of the Civil War and more than two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, that Union Gen. Gordon Granger and more than a thousand U.S. troops went into Galveston, Texas and shared the news of freedom with the 250,000 enslaved people in the state.

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Freedom was still not immediate for all of the enslaved people, some enslavers continued to suppress the news that they had been freed.   

After efforts from advocates, the day became an official state holiday in Texas in 1980. At that same time, the McDuffie Rebellion was happening in Miami. It exploded after the murder of Arthur McDuffie, a Black insurance salesman and former marine, at the hands of four white police officers.

On Dec. 17, 1979, McDuffie ran a red light on his motorcycle. He was chased by police and brutally beaten to death by the officers.

Violence and rage ensued after the Miami-Dade County police officers involved in the case were found not guilty of his death. 

"Riots, as they called it. I don't like to call it that because they called it the 'McDuffie riots' and Mr. McDuffie had nothing to do with that. It was brought on because the officers were found not guilty," said film producer Femi Folami Browne, who was in Miami when the rebellion happened in 1980.

Browne helped produce the film "When Liberty Burns," which tells McDuffie's story. She joined Sundial to talk about the documentary and the meaning of Juneteenth.  

The Miami Film Festival is screening the documentary online Friday in commemoration of Juneteenth.     

This excerpt of the conversation has been slightly edited for clarity.

WLRN: What’s the one memory from the 1980 Rebellion in Miami that jumps out at you?

BROWNE: I happen to have volunteered with an organization called the Center for Family and Child Enrichment. And as with this current protest, I was struck by the number of young people in the streets and we were asked to go out after curfew to encourage them to go home so they wouldn't be arrested. So my interest was in making sure that, one, that they did not completely destroy the community that we lived in and that they not be arrested and have records that would haunt them for the rest of their lives. Certainly, I understood the anger, but I did think that we could direct it in a more positive way. And with the organization that I was working with, we tried to do so.

You're the grandmother of a young black male. What are the conversations you have with him about McDuffie and everything that's going on with George Floyd?

It is a hard conversation to have. I remember just a year ago I was babysitting with him while his mother was on a business trip. And I posted on Facebook that I dropped him off at the bus stop in Plantation, Florida. And I realized he was the only child at the bus stop in that neighborhood, which is an upper-middle-class neighborhood. And I could not pull away. There was an innate fear of leaving him unprotected. With that said, you can imagine how I must be feeling now. Having to encounter the same fear only intensified. I realize that while we tried to shield him from, you know, what is a harsh reality, we can no longer do that.

What did Juneteenth mean to you growing up? 

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It was a regional holiday in Texas that just became a state holiday in 1980. And here in Miami, I did not learn about Juneteenth until perhaps a decade ago, much like the slaves didn't find out they were free until two years later. This again points to how our history was muddled and the narrative was that we were not given privy to the actual history of black people, not until archives and digital information became available. We started doing our own research and now we can correct the narrative.

I personally would not celebrate Juneteenth as a happy holiday because it just underscores the idea that, you know, black people were kept enslaved for an additional two and half years. But I do understand that we want to have a holiday like Kwanzaa, like Juneteenth, that we can celebrate our people and our culture.

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Leslie Ovalle Atkinson is the lead producer behind WLRN's daily magazine program, Sundial. As a multimedia producer, she also works on visual and digital storytelling.