Hamil R. HarrisLifestyle

How I Found a Special Place in National and Family History

A Juneteenth Surprise for Me

Journalists are used to being witnesses to history. After all, we chronicle the first draft of most notable events. But last week I found surprise amid the joy of the nation’s first celebration of the Juneteenth holiday.

As Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) spoke in the shadow of the African American Civil War Monument, I noticed the sense of pride that graced the faces of a crowd that included members of the Masonic Grand Lodge at 10th and U streets in Northwest and former D.C. Council member Frank Smith, a longtime supporter for national recognition of the day Texas slaves became the last to learn that they were free.

Green, one of the original congressional advocates for a national Juneteenth holiday, was the main speaker at the event that program place at the African American Civil War Monument that came after a Peace Walk by the Mason and Eastern Stars part of the Grand Lodge.

“Let’s hear it for Juneteenth, now a national holiday!” said Green. “It’s time for great jubilation but we should also remember this: The Emancipation Proclamation sought to free those who were slaves at the time of its enactment. But there were many who died who didn’t make it to Juneteenth.”

Then came the surprise.

Green mentioned the name of Al Edwards, the Texas lawmaker who in 1979 was the architect of the Juneteenth holiday in Texas, the first state make June 19 a paid state holiday. He was also founder of Juneteenth U.S.A., a nonprofit dedicated to remembering the day.

I had no idea that the Edwards, my cousin, was instrumental in memorializing that date.

At that moment my heart was filled with pride and emotion. I couldn’t call my father because he died in 2016. But the only thing I have is the memory of meeting Edwards with my father at the Los Angeles Democratic Convention where I was able to get a press pass for Henry Harris.

My dad was doing volunteer work at the convention for Sheridan Broadcasting Network. He worked as an NBC editor and actor in Los Angeles. He died in 2016.

Every day at the convention, the Democratic National Committee would hold a press availability and I would make a point of attending and greeting Edwards, who responded with a cheerful “Hey, cuz.”

Edwards served in the Texas legislature between 1978 and 2011, representing District 146. During his 30-year tenure he led three powerful committees. He became  chairman of the Rules and Resolutions Committee, the Budget and Oversight of the Ways and Means Committee and the Appropriations Committee.

“I was so proud of Al being elected and all of his accomplishments,” said cousin Sylvia Edwards Ward. “He fought so many years for the date to be a holiday in Texas. He would have loved to see this day come for the entire country.”

I never saw Edwards after that convention in Los Angeles. I never attended family reunions and I knew little about my father until the final years of his life. I have never seen my grandparents and only a few cousins in Los Angeles, mainly Sylvia, Edith, Oscar, Naomi, Gwen, Lois and Allen and their children.

“It was a historic moment because Texas led the country at one time in establishing the holiday,” Smith said. “Maybe the nation will be reminded of the role the soldiers played to keep this country united under one flag.”

And I was mighty proud.

Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the Greater Washington Area. Hamil has chronicled the Million Man March, the Clinton White House, the September 11 attack, the sniper attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the campaign of President Barack Obama and many other people and events. Hamil is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of the Washington Post where he writes a range of stories, shoots photos and produces videos for the print and online editions of the Post. In addition, he is often called upon to report on crime, natural disasters and other breaking issues. In 2006 Harris was part of a team of reporters that published the series “Being a Black Man.” He was also the reporter on the video project that accompanied the series that won two Emmy Awards, the Casey Medal and the Peabody Award. Hamil has lectured at Georgetown University, George Washington University, Howard University, the American University, the University of Maryland and the University of the District of Columbia. He also lectures several times a year to interns during their semester in the District as part of their matriculation at the Consortium of Christian Colleges and Universities.

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