If ever there was an unlikely place for a Juneteenth celebration, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, it's North Idaho, former bastion of the Aryan Nations and home to a whole lot of fair-complected European-Americans.
Juneteenth began 140 years ago, on June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas, bearing the news that the Civil War had ended and the enslaved were now free. Apparently, word of the Emancipation Proclamation had not penetrated Texas because Union troops were too thinly scattered to enforce Lincoln's 1863 executive order.
From the docks of the harbor, Granger read out General Order Number 3 to the people of Galveston, the same words that are repeated at Juneteenth celebrations across the country:
"The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer."
Moscow, Idaho, may be an improbable setting for such a commemoration, but John Crout isn't worried. In Houston, where Crout was raised, there were Juneteenth celebrations "all over the place." He came to Moscow in 1982 on a football scholarship at University of Idaho and returned after serving for 12 years in the Washington National Guard.
Crout's goal for Moscow's inaugural event is simply to get it off the ground. "Wherever you start, you build from that," he says. This year he's aiming for a family event, basically a big picnic with fried catfish and cornbread, and some friendly games of horseshoe, cards, darts and bocce ball. There will be a dash of pageantry with the coronation of Mr. and Miss Juneteenth, attended by their honor court, and a page out of African-American history, too, with a slide show on the Middle Passage repeated several times throughout the day.
Crout notes that there are already Juneteenth celebrations in Boise and Mountain Home. That puts Idaho one up on Washington, which holds Juneteenth events in Seattle and Tacoma. In fact, Crout says he was surprised to discover recently that Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne had signed a bill making Juneteenth an Idaho state holiday in back in February 2001.
Crout was prompted to mount a Juneteenth event in Moscow by some elders from the black community who had come to see the mobile African-American history exhibit that he had coordinated through his organization, African Free, Inc., in February. They admired the exhibit but wondered why there was no Juneteenth celebration in Moscow.
Crout agreed and went to work. It also sets an important example for black children, he says: "I want them to have something to have pride in -- besides MTV." And it's not just for the African-American community, says Crout, but a "way to get our people out mingling" with the larger community.
Crout says Juneteenth organizers from Mountain Home and Boise told him, "When we first started, we had a grill and a picnic table." He hopes that from such small acorns, racial understanding may grow. Juneteenth, he says, is "one of the very few days that is ours. We just ask for equal respect."