Juneteenth, Slavery, And The Hurricane Connection

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My ancestors were taken from their land, packed into ships, and forced to work as slaves early in American history. Many of them perished along the way from the horrific conditions on those slave ships. I am sorry if that is hard for you to read, but they are facts. Facts that should not be hidden from the history books or dismissed. In meteorological studies, we learn so much from looking back at past storms. Retrospective analysis is probably a good thing for society too. This week President Joe Biden signed an overwhelmingly bipartisan bill designating Juneteenth as a federal holiday. What is Juneteenth and why is there a connection to hurricanes?

The History.com website provides a good starting point for answering the question. It notes, “Juneteenth (short for “June Nineteenth”) marks the day when federal troops arrived in GalvestonTexas in 1865 to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people be freed.” Ironically, this happened over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed. Juneteenth has long been acknowledged by the African American community. In reflecting on the latest federal holiday, a memorandum issued on June 17th by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management writes, “Today, President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act (S. 475) into law, recognizing the historical significance of the Juneteenth National Independence Day to the United States and that (1) history should be regarded as a means for understanding the past and solving the challenges of the future; and (2) the celebration of the end of slavery is an important and enriching part of the history and heritage of the United States.”

This brings me back to hurricanes. I was poking around on the National Hurricane Center webpage because, at the time of writing, there is tropical system in the Gulf of Mexico that could further develop into a named storm by Juneteenth. Even if it does not receive a name, it will be significant rainfall producer in parts of the Southeast so people along the Gulf Coast should monitor the evolving situation. Ironically, this region of the country, including Galveston, is the region where the atrocity of slavery thrived. Digging deeper into the National Hurricane Center website, this entry in a section discussing notable ship interactions with hurricanes caught my eye:

  • “Virgin Islands 13-16 Aug 1793 Reports of 28 of 42 slaves lost with the additional loss of some crew on board the BRISTOL. There are also indications of three slave-bearing vessels from Africa also lost in this hurricane”

Many of the Transatlantic slave routes overlapped with the climatological tracks of late-season Atlantic hurricanes. Those storms typically emerge from the African coast as clusters of storms, and some of them become hurricanes. Many of those hurricanes make landfall in the Caribbean islands and the U.S. Southeast just as those ships of torture did. While many folktales exist within the Black community about slaves and hurricanes, it is clear to me that the aforementioned ship loss would have been far from an isolated event.

I also cannot help but think that the rainfall in the various hurricanes and tropical storms over the years symbolic represent the tears of my former ancestors. However, rainfall also brings forth new beginnings too.

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