Black hymns: The legacy left by the enslaved honored on Juneteenth and every day

DURHAM, N.C. -- If the trees surrounding the historic Stagville plantation in Durham, North Carolina, could talk, they'd tell you it was once one of the largest plantations in the state.

"They did grow a little tobacco, cotton and of course all types of foods," said Khadija McNair, the assistant site manager at Stagville Plantation. "At this plantation's height, it was about 30,000 acres large and there were over one thousand people enslaved here."

Stagville was established in the late 1700s, built on the backs of slaves and run by the Cameron-Bennehan family.

"We know that Paul Cameron gives a speech at UNC-Chapel Hill around 1870. He says there's not one monument standing to the accomplishment of African American people," said McNair.

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The system of slavery destroyed and separated millions of families. The enslaved were forced to labor on the property while enduring physical and sexual abuse that often bore children. The consequences of escaping to freedom kept many slaves from leaving, so they used hymns and spirituals to mentally escape.

"Songs of solace. Songs of hope, sorrow, joy, strength. In many ways, as Dubois and others say, music is the soul of Black folks," said Rev. Dr. Luke Powery, the dean of the Duke University Chapel.

Powery said much of the music originates from Africa. Many of these songs have withstood the test of time and are sung by church choirs on Sunday mornings today.

"Which is a miracle. It's amazing to me that we have so many of these songs that we can turn to," said Powery. "The enslaved offer a gift to the world!"

More than 150 years after the enslaved were declared free men and women, Rev. Dr. Christopher Stackhouse of Lewis Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, believes African Americans continue fighting for new freedoms.

"Police brutality is a freedom we've fought for since we've won our freedom from the plantation. So we won freedom from the plantation only to be further victimized by those who were sworn to serve and protect," said Stackhouse.

"'Wade in the Water' was a song and a message about how to outsmart white supremacy on your way to achieve freedom," Stackhouse explained. "In that way, 'Wade in the Water' is still relevant today because we still have to fight to outsmart the systems put in place to keep us from achieving equality."

These hymns of freedom are the thread woven through the quilted history of this country. They serve as a reminder of the past and the promise of its hope-filled future.

"I would hope they would be proud of us, all of us, for reclaiming their voices, for telling their stories and acknowledging their contributions," said McNair.

In honor of Juneteenth, we're telling stories of what Black freedom means today, from a 94-year-old's quest for a national holiday to the fight for reparations to cultural celebrations. Click here for more stories from your city and around the country.
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