I was not quite 7 years old in May 1965, and I held the hand of the late Melindy Williams, who worked as a domestic worker for my aunt and uncle, the late J.B. and Henry Eva Bullard Roberts, in the eastern edge of Suwannee County on Adams Road as we waked down a dust-covered white sand road. Dust covered high elderberry bushes that were in full bloom, as well as the kudzu that bordered a white sand road. My Daddy and Uncle were visiting with my aunt and uncle, and I was taken by Melindy so grown people could visit. We were going to church, her church. The church was not large. It was made of cinder block and painted white. In the interior, was a raised platform and a pulpit, and in front of the pulpit, a simple communion table.

A painting of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane was hung in a prominent place on the wall behind the pulpit, and, in front of that painting, several empty pews for the choir. The parishioners languidly moved hand fans back and forth advertising Combs Funeral Home Lake City, Florida.

To me, the pastor seemed old. He may not have been that old. He wore rimless spectacles, and he also was wearing a long black robe, and when he spoke his voice was deep, authoritative like my Daddy’s when he emphasized something. After we were seated by a lady in a beautiful white suit, the pastor said: “Brothers and sisters in Christ, visiting members of the clergy, special guests, we welcome you to a program tonight that will center around Freedom in the Lord, and our upcoming Freedom Day.” I turned to my Melindy and asked: “What is Freedom Day?” She responded: “The pastor will explain.” And the pastor did explain. It was the first time in my young life I heard about Emancipation or Freedom Day, but, now close to 55 years later, I recall some details of that evening.

I recall the pastor began the service with prayer, and, that he got on his knees to pray, and that was a long, sincere prayer.

He thanked the Lord for waking him up that morning. He thanked the Lord for sparing him to be able to speak in the church once more. He thanked Him for his family, his congregation, the nation, and the nation’s leaders, and he asked for the blessing of the Lord that his message would magnify and glorify God. He asked the Lord for forgiveness of sins and for His mercy. He thanked Him for His grace, love, forgiveness and mercy. Throughout the sanctuary, came loud, enthusiastic and resounding “Amen’s and Hallelujahs.”

At the pulpit was another lady standing behind the pastor. She held in her hand a big white handkerchief and a hand fan, and, as the pastor spoke in that sanctuary without air conditioning, she wiped his perspiring face and forehead, and intermittently fanned him. She poured a glass of iced water from a clear glass pitcher for the pastor.

I was not more than 12 miles from my home, but I might as well have been on another planet, as I had never witnessed any of this in the church services I attended. I was rapt, focused and took it all in, as it touched my heart with its magnificence, and the magnificence was in the sincerity, simplicity and humility.

The pastor announced the choir, and the choir came in from someplace in the church behind the choir section. They were, in my almost 7-year-old eyes, glorious, beautiful, wonderfully dressed in long white robes with golden collars, stoles. To one side of the choir was an old upright piano, and the pastor introduced the pianist and the choir and said:

“We are privileged to have a young lady with us here tonight who is the niece of our head usher. She is attending school up at Spellman College in Atlanta where she is studying music and voice. She will soon further her musical education on a full scholarship at the Eastman Conservatory of Music up in New York. She is going to bless us with a solo tonight, and our choir will be, for lack of a better word, be supporting her, backing her up. We all need support beloved. Thank your young lady for coming here tonight to bless our hearts.”

The pianist played an introduction, and electricity shot through me, and, I believe it shot through the whole congregation when she began singing. I had never heard such a voice that broke the bands of the earthly dimension and, though I didn’t know it in my childish mind, I felt in my heart, that I was, in those moments, very close to touching the Divine. She sang with that marvelous rich soprano voice:

“Oh I know I’ve been changed,

Oh, I know I’ve been changed,

Oh, Lord, I know I’ve been changed,

The Angels up in Heaven done signed my name.”

Then with the choir supporting her, and the congregation picking it up, she sang the chorus again, and then, suddenly, like magic the lyrics of the first verse.

“One day, one day I was walking alone.

You know the angels in heaven done signed my name.

I heard a voice but didn’t see no form.

You know the angels in heaven done signed my name.

The voice I heard it sounded so sweet,

You know the angels in heaven done signed my name.

It seemed like Jesus was speaking to me.

You know the angels in heaven done signed my name.”

The chorus with all singing reverberated again with everyone singing clapping and a white robed choir swayed and sang from the depths of their hearts, and the verses and choruses continued until the ending of the song.

When the soloist and the choir finished, there was clapping, shouting, hugging, joy, happiness, tears and smiles.

The pastor then told the story of the 20th of May that was coming up, and that in 1865, one hundred years ago, over in Tallahassee, Florida, thousands of “our people” African American people in slavery learned they were free. Free to choose their own destinies, free to live where they wanted. Free to learn to read and write. He stated that with this freedom came responsibility and that the responsibility of everyone there was to continue to tell the story of Freedom Day.

The service that night went on in a packed church, and, in a north central Florida that was still, at that time racially segregated in almost all aspects of daily life. At least on the surface, almost completely segregated. The pastor spoke of names and people, some of whom I had heard: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his wife Coretta Scott King, he spoke of the late Harry T. Moore from near Live Oak, and how he and his wife had given their lives for freedom. He spoke of the importance of voting and registering to vote.

That night, I learned about Freedom Day, and not only did I learn about it, I saw what it meant in the tears that were shed, in the enthusiastic singing, and in the joyful celebration of living. I heard and saw the meaning of Freedom Day in that service.

Emancipation Day, May 20. Freedom Day. May Day. Whatever you might want to call it. Remember it’s much more than a cookout and dancing and merry making, although that’s part of it, and do that with gusto, celebrate, but in the midst of it, remember the countless thousands who lie in marked and unmarked graves who never tasted the sweetness of freedom but who paved the way with blood, sweat, tears, and, many with even their lives so Freedom Day can go on.

It’s been over five decades since I heard that soloist who touched my childish heart and sat in that little church and, still to this day, those words reverberate, and close to the end of the program others reverberated strongly and with indelible force near the end of the sermon, as all that little church sang with vibrant joy and enthusiasm:

“This joy I have within, the world didn’t give to me.

The world didn’t give it. The world can’t take it away.”

Freedom Day, my indelible lesson. I’ll never forget it. I will always cherish it and know I received a rare blessing, a rare blessing indeed.

From the Eight Mile Still on the Woodpecker Route north of White Springs, wishing you a good day. Keep praying and don’t lose hope. Glad to see the Stephen Foster Park opened and look forward to when the buildings are opened and its safe again. I was going to walk at the north gate last week, but the weeds are so very high in the median, I was afraid snakes big enough to put a saddle on might be hiding there, and I wasn’t that brave. I know the dedicated staff at Stephen Foster who are always so helpful will attend to this.

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