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Rep. Pamelya Herndon tells her family's Juneteenth history

 Pamelya Herndon's grandmother, Johnetta Alexander Wade King, who was born into slavery and freed as a child
Courtesy of Rep. Pamelya Herndon
Pamelya Herndon's grandmother, Johnetta Alexander Wade King, who was born into slavery and freed as a child

On Sunday and Monday, Juneteenth will be celebrated on Albuquerque's Civic Plaza with music and fun. It is now a national holiday marking the moment news of Emancipation came to enslaved people in Texas. The meaning of that day is still deeply woven into people's lives. KUNM's Alice Fordham spoke with New Mexico Democratic State Representative Pamelya Herndon, a lawyer and politician, about what she knows of her enslaved family's roots in Texas, and what Juneteenth means to her.

HERNDON: I can only trace my side of the family from my mother's side, beginning with my great grandmother. And her name was Betty Alexander. The master of the plantation where she resided would go and pick a slave and then would decide that he's going to have sex with her. So that's how my great grandmother was born. And of course, after she was born with this mixture of races, she was fair skinned and with very with white features, so she was appropriate to keep in the house. But I do know that she too, and I'm going to use the term raped, by the by the master's, son, because my grandmother was the result of that connection.

KUNM: And what do you know about Emancipation and, and how that played out in this family, your family?

HERNDON: So what I'm able to find out is that Betty Alexander was subsequently freed. And then of course, my grandmother was free, being her child. And so my grandmother, at some point in time, moved to Bryan, Texas. And at that point, she was cleaning houses. And she always was trying to improve her knowledge. So one of the vows that I know that she made is that each and every one of her children would go to college. So my mother went to Prairie View A&M University. So of all the children, she was actually the first one to go to college.

KUNM: Do you remember the time when you learned that your great grandmother, your great great grandmother, were enslaved?

HERNDON: So it was my grandmother, who actually told told me about about Betty Alexander, and about her being the house slave. So just learning about the fact that here was this house slave, and the fact that she had to succumb to the whims of any man who wanted her, and then my grandmother was born as a result of that was pretty scary. And she couldn't bring any charges. You couldn't say, oh, my gosh, I was raped. And no one would listen, even if she did say that.

KUNM: Did that influence your career choice?

HERNDON: It did. As a matter of fact, it was very influential of my career choices.

I do remember, my decision to actually go to law school was tempered by watching a television program. And so this was this young white reporter. And one story he did was in Louisiana, and so they were all these houses that were there, they were falling apart, they had no indoor plumbing. And so the end of that story I remember to this day was: who will help these people? Who will come and help them? And I remember sitting in front of that television and saying, I will, I will come and help them. And so that was the beginning of my knowing and thinking that I truly was going to go to law school.

KUNM: And then we're just coming up on Juneteeth in a few days. Tell me a little bit about - has it been meaningful to you in your lifetime to see that recognized?

HERNDON: You know, Juneteenth was a holiday that was primarily celebrated only in Texas, actually, because it was in Texas that the holiday arose. It took people in Texas two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to learn that they were free. And so it was a big day of celebration. There was lots of food, there was dancing and singing in the park.

When I went off to Howard University, and I was talking to people about Juneteenth. Most of them never heard of the Juneteenth holiday, they go: What's that? Well, it was unique to Texas. But we've seen this holiday grow, of course to where we are now where it's a national holiday.

This coverage was made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and KUNM listeners.

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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