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    Q&A: Retired Army colonel Dwayne Wagner talks about his Juneteenth poem for Military Review

    By Rayonna Burton-Jernigan, Evansville Courier & Press,

    2024-06-18

    For those looking to understand why Juneteenth is an important holiday, a poem might be able to help.

    "Because it's the 'new' holiday right now, the word hasn't been spread, or some Americans don't understand why the holiday is important," said retired Army Col. Dwayne Wagner.

    Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865, when 250,000 enslaved people of African descent in Galveston, Texas learned of their freedom following the end of the Civil War and two years after President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. It was designated a federal holiday in 2021.

    "Within the military, if you had anybody from Texas in the unit, they would celebrate it and they would bring others into the celebration," Wagner said. "So even before Juneteenth became a formal holiday, transplanted Texans celebrated all over the world."

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    As a military kid, Wagner grew up traveling around the U.S. and Europe. He moved to Dallas in the early 1970s to attend Bishop College where he met his wife Edna. During his 30-year military career, the couple traveled to Oklahoma, Germany and other military locations before arriving in Fort Leavenworth.

    Having a background in policy and strategy, Wagner retired to start teaching at the Command and General Staff College in 2008.

    His wife Edna is the director at the Randy Richard Allen Cultural Center, an African-American museum in Leavenworth, where they talk about the original Buffalo soldiers and other Black history in the Army. There they host jazz concerts, provide tutors for kids to retired military personnel, and provide a support system for kids.

    Following the mindset of "it takes a village to raise a child," Edna enjoys giving back to children and challenging them to be better. During her husband's military career, she did similar things for families and spouses of soldiers on base, especially around Juneteenth.

    Last year in March, Dwayne Wagner was asked to write a poem for the Military Review that helped people understand the holiday and its significance. Three weeks before retiring, he said he put all his energy into finishing the poem before moving to the Evansville area.

    "That poem is me, history stories from the elders, observations Edna and I have made in our 47 years of marriage, and me trying to find a way to talk to other Americans who don't look like us because I wanted them to be able to read the poem to understand what Juneteenth means," Wagner said.

    The poem is titled "Juneteenth: A Freedom's Journey 1619-2123," and Wagner said he hopes that people find themselves within the poem, no matter their race. With time passing, he hopes the holiday is embraced more as an American holiday rather than just a Black holiday.

    Now retired and wanting to be closer to their grandkids, the couple moved to Evansville and hope to bring more of that Juneteenth spirit and celebration with them.

    The Courier & Press sat down with Wagner to understand the meaning behind the poem and holiday from his perspective.

    Why do you think it took so long for people to hear about Juneteenth?

    We met in Texas so we celebrated Juneteenth in the 70s and we're very familiar with the holiday. When we traveled in the military, we carried Juneteenth with us.

    It was a regional holiday and only Texans or folks in the southwest were familiar with it when the federal government decided it needed or should have national recognition. And it took about two years for the movement to reach that.

    The word started spreading, but it's a new holiday that's not embraced like other holidays. A couple of people don't understand what it's all about and the biggest frustration I have is when someone asks, "Well, what does Juneteenth mean for me?"

    What it means for you is your fellow American is now a citizen and if he or she is free, that means we're all free.

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    How different is it to celebrate Juneteenth now compared to the 1970s?

    Celebrations in the 70s were family community events. Think old-school barbecue: red velvet cake, watermelon, sweet potato pie.

    Just think about a good old celebration along the lines of the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and other other American holidays, typically celebrated within black communities. Now that was the 70s but when we moved into the 90s and 2000s, the celebrations became more diverse and if you look at today, they're even more diverse.

    I think the celebrations back in the day were more homey, family-like and less commercial. What I'm seeing today are more commercial Juneteenth celebrations, which is fine. Whatever it takes to bring people together to celebrate and to share history.

    We learn some black history in school, especially around the Civil Rights Movement. Why do you think Juneteenth was never brought up?

    I think that most people knew Juneteenth as a Texas holiday or regional holiday, and they didn't think it had national implications.

    When I first heard that it was going to become a federal holiday, I didn't understand because I grew up in Texas, and it was always a Texas thing or a regional thing. It was when I started doing a little research and writing the poem that I connected all the dots because I don't think we understood that when the last military unit was dispatched to Beaumont, Texas, to free the enslaved Africans until they were free, all of us are not free.

    How can we say that everyone is free if we still have enslaved Africans in Texas, who are not? So that's what did it for me and then the light went up like that's worth the celebration.

    Here is the full text of Wagner's poem:

    "Juneteenth: Freedom’s Journey (1619–2123)"

    “20 August 1619

    A transatlantic feat,

    Slave ships filled keel to deck,

    Enslaved hearts beat and beat,

    Their voices sing to Gods unknown:

    “When will I be free?”

    19 April 1775

    Colonists challenged the King,

    Men and women, white and black,

    And every shade between,

    Their voices sang to a God well-known:

    “We will fight to be free!”

    14 October 1781

    A battle, often ignored,

    Enslaved Africans, muskets, and grit,

    Dislodge the Redcoats once more.

    Battle of Yorktown and Redoubt 9,

    The enslaved men ask their Gods:

    “Does victory make freedom mine?”

    12 April 1861

    A nation, torn apart,

    Brother and cousins, swords drawn,

    Pointed at our nation’s heart,

    Soldiers cried to their Christian God:

    “Will my death set others free?”

    1 January 1863

    A proclamation decree,

    Unshackled chains, the Black Enslaved,

    An attempt to make all free.

    Texas slaves cried to their Gods:

    “Why not us … and … why not me?”

    9 April 1865

    End of the bloody war.

    Over six hundred thousand dead,

    Grant meets with Lee once more.

    Blue and Gray mothers wailed to their God:

    “Can our sons now be freed?”

    1863 to ’65

    Freedom took two years.

    Texas ignored Emancipation.

    More pain, more blood, more tears.

    Field-slave Wagoner said to his God:

    “What now will you have us fear?”

    19 June 1865

    A glorious day indeed.

    Arrival of troops in federal blue,

    Texas Enslaved are freed.

    A coal-skinned mother in Galveston shouts:

    “We be free! We are free!”

    1865 to ’77

    Forty acres and a mule.

    Reconstruction failed to hold,

    Rich power brokers ruled.

    Poor voices agonize to God:

    “Will freedom find us soon?”

    1865 to 2021

    Juneteenth is freedom’s grace.

    Celebrated Texas-wide,

    Now ready for America’s embrace.

    Deacon Wagner looked to the heavens:

    “Is Juneteenth freedom’s taste?”

    18 June 2021

    This holiday, “they” celebrate,

    Exactly what does it mean?

    Am I allowed to participate,

    To celebrate the free?

    I asked my God for guidance:

    “Join hands in liberty.”

    19 June 2021

    Juneteenth, Juneteenth

    Let’s celebrate.

    America righted a wrong.

    Juneteenth, Juneteenth

    Let’s elevate:

    “With love, praise, and song.”

    19 June 2023

    Juneteenth seeks to unite.

    Indigenous, immigrant, enslaved or not,

    America has earned this right.

    Citizens quietly self-reflect:

    “Juneteenth brings freedom’s might.”

    2024 and beyond.

    The next 100 years.

    Juneteenth represents our quest.

    Make freedom the last frontier.

    Our grandchildren silently smile,

    As June 19th now endears.

    New Years, Easter, Memorial Day,

    We lovingly recognize.

    July the 4th and Labor Day,

    Are gleefully embraced with pride.

    Juneteenth, our newest holiday,

    Can help unite our tribes.

    My father’s story of olden times,

    Included Juneteenth lore.

    The slaughtered hog, the greens, the yams,

    The songs, the dance, and more.

    While Grandma sang a country tune:

    “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”

    If I am not free; You are not free.

    If you are not free; I am not free.

    America, our land of liberty.

    We ask and pray:

    “For equality.”

    Juneteenth is for you,

    Juneteenth is for me,

    Our histories not aligned.

    Regardless of each journey,

    Our futures are intertwined.

    I hear ancestral voices ask:

    “America, will thine be mine?”

    This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: Q&A: Retired Army colonel Dwayne Wagner talks about his Juneteenth poem for Military Review

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