By Wiley Henry
MEMPHIS, TN – Dr. Jane Abraham grew up in the late 1950s and ‘60s when animus towards Black people was as American as apple pie. “It was horrific,” she said. “I’m 72 years old and I grew up in the middle of all that mess.”
It may come as a surprise, but Abraham is not Black. Her father was full-blooded Lebanese and her mother had come from the oil fields in Louisiana, she said, adding they were very poor.
“We’re brown skins,” Abraham, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in addictions, noted. “The Middle-Easterners have no designation. [So] we’re called Caucasians.”
When Abraham met Telisa Franklin, president of the annual Memphis Juneteenth Festival, “we just fell instantly in love with each other, and it’s just been incredible ever since.”
“She shared with me her story of growing up and how we can become friends,” Franklin said. “She understands that it’s going to take different colors to bring about unity.”
Abraham describes diversity as a big salad with all the ingredients. “We don’t want everybody to be the same,” she explained. “We want everyone to keep their own culture and to be who they are and to share, learn and grow.”
Now three months into their friendship, Abraham has found common ground with Franklin, who shared with Abraham the message and meaning of Juneteenth, a national holiday commemorating the end of slavery.
“Juneteenth means freedom to me,” declared Abraham, when asked what she’d gleaned from Franklin’s history lesson about Juneteenth, now in its 28th year in Memphis.
Formerly held at the historic Robert R. Church Park on Beale Street, Franklin engineered a move this year to Health Sciences Park at the corner of Madison Avenue and South Dunlap Street.
Slated Friday and Saturday, June 18 and 19, revelers will commemorate Juneteenth at the park where slave owner and trader Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife were interred in 1904.
A crew has begun exhuming their remains and will reinter them at a Confederate museum 200 miles away. The move is being celebrated by many in the Black community as a resounding victory that had been a long time coming.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization of descendants of Confederate veterans, are overseeing the move. The group had been embroiled in a legal battle to keep the former name of Forrest Park in place and bar the removal of Forrest’s equestrian statue, under which the Forrests were interred.
“Dr. Jane wanted to know how we can learn from the past and how we can embrace the future,” Franklin said.
Abraham’s own family history is inextricably linked to the terror that the “brown skins” and Black people had to grapple with along with other societal ills that were intended to thwart their advancement.
Her Lebanese father, she said, “…came over on the boat from Beirut in his mother’s belly. He had gone through a lot of prejudicial things growing up in the [Mississippi] Delta. [And] he was really quick to share his experience with us”
There are other experiences that Abraham won’t forget. “My sister and I were reared by African-American women. So, my real first mother was an African-American woman who came in, took care of me, and loved me as her own child, which was an amazing experience.”
Abraham was devastated after “Miss Mattie” died. She was six years old. “That’s when I started waking up and realizing that there needed to be some changes,” she said, and decided to take a stand.
She has an affinity for humanity, no matter the person’s race, creed or nationality. But then she is quick to challenge the status quo that Black people are inferior to white people.
“The African American race is super intelligent,” she said. “But they’ve been oppressed for so long. That’s part of what frightens white people. They’re scared. I’m sorry for them.
“A lot of it is based on the fact that many white people are terrified that Black people are going to take over everything and they won’t have anything left for themselves. That’s just ludicrous.”
Abraham hopes that people will see each other as friends instead of enemies. Juneteenth is just the beginning.
“My life experience has brought me to a place where I’m going to live by it and die by it,” she said.