Family ties underlie book on Juneteenth

Monday, June 19th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

At first mention of her children's book about Juneteenth, Anna Pearl Barrett laughs: "Yes, just a little piece of Americana from the '40s."

And Juneteenth: Celebrating Freedom in Texas (Eakin Press, $12.95) is just that: the story of an extended family - aunts, uncles and cousins by the dozens - getting together to revel on their biggest day (except for Christmas) of the year. New, starched flour-sack dresses with ruffled hems from old sheets were a must. The boys wore shirts remade from their fathers' old ones. Ms. Barrett says her mama's handiness on the old pedal sewing machine couldn't be surpassed and that no one would have guessed the lovely dresses were once flour sacks. From the whitewashing of the fence to the arrival of the new radio, this could have been the tale of any hard-working farm family in 1945. But it isn't.

Anna Pearl Barrett is the granddaughter of Harrison Barrett, born a slave in Harris County, Texas, around 1851. When news of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation finally reached Texas on June 19, 1865 - two and a half years after he actually declared the slaves free - her grandfather was 15 years old.

Mr. Harris married, and soon, through scrimping, saving and dealing with those hit hard financially by the war, was able to buy land. At one time he owned more than 1,000 acres. It was on this homestead, years after his death, that his family gathered to celebrate Juneteenth.

Long before the Texas Legislature made the date an official holiday in 1979, the Barrett family (a small town in Southeast Texas bears their name) worked furiously to prepare. Momma cooked, sewed, cleaned and put her children to work weeding, watering and whitewashing everything in sight - including trees. Even a snake in the henhouse didn't interrupt her for long. She got Daddy's gun and shot it.

When Mrs. Barrett's brother reached out to touch the forbidden gun while her Momma stroked and calmed her terrified broody hen, Momma exploded. "Don't you dare," she rebuked him. "Guns are meant for killing . . . That's the sole purpose for a gun. Yes, your Daddy uses guns to kill animals, but he kills the animals to put meat on the table. Y'all understand? Guns are used to kill." The children solemnly promised never to touch a gun.

Mrs. Barrett is proud of her family. With grandparents whom the culture kept from learning to read or write and parents who only made it to about the third grade, she is among the seven of her father's 13 children who went to college.

"Daddy always told us everybody needed to know how to write his name, tell time and count his money," she says.

When the little girl (Annie, in the book) became bilingual, she took the name Anna. The author holds a bachelor's degree from Texas Southern University and a master's from Middlebury College. And now she writes about values.

" 'You bend the twig the way you want it to grow,' is what the old folks used to say," she says.

Listening to A Date With Judy on the radio - so dear to her that she calls her sister by that name to this day - and hearing her beloved Uncle Porter tell the family stories on the front porch: These are among the many family experiences that formed her own values.

"I don't know if the younger children really realize how hard it is to step out on faith. It's much easier to live without a family - without the pressures of family life. I know it must have been hard on my parents. They worked hard to see that we were happy," she says.

The Barrett family now holds the family reunion in August. Scholarships from the Barrett Historical Society (the homestead was named a Texas historical site in 1988) and awards from the family are given.

Today, Ms. Barrett will have a smaller gathering with friends and family at her Houston home. Barbecue on the grill and food from her small victory garden will be served. The tables may not groan as they did in 1945, but the tales of Grandfather Harrison Barrett and the rest of the family are sure to be told.