“Us and Them is Only in Your Mind:” Black Liberation in East Texas

During last weekend’s Juneteenth events, the Juneteenth Association of Tyler held its annual parade on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and We Remember Tyler presented its second annual vigil in remembrance of Black victims of lynching. 

The holiday marks the day Union General Gordon Granger and his troops came to Galveston, Texas, announcing Black people were free of slavery in Texas and already free across most of the country. Two years earlier, President Abraham Lincoln had declared slaves in the Confederacy free through the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

In 2021, Juneteenth became a federal holiday, spearheaded by activists such as Opal Lee, the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.”

Tyler residents defined Black liberation and reflected on Black resilience in America in the face of injustices and inequalities.

The Rev. Larry Wade, a speaker at the lynching vigil, said the holiday reflects “the resiliency of the Black race.” 

“In 1619, we first were brought to these  shores on a ship called the White Lion, arriving in the colony of Virginia, with about 20 to 30 enslaved blacks from the continent of Africa,” Wade said.

📷 all photos by Nico Grayson

Wade vividly described the effects of colonialism and white supremacy, two practices embedded in the formation of the United States from the beginning. 

Since emancipation, Black Americans have been fighting for their liberation – whether from white hate groups or being targeted for being Black while walking or driving. Black Americans are 3.23 times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police, according to a new study by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 

Drummer Casey Muze performed at the June 17 lynching vigil.

The vigil began with an African drum performance by Casey Muze. 

When asked the question, “What does Black liberation mean to you?” Muze said, “It means an opportunity to walk down the street and feel like you’re safe and not be judged or assumed you have ill intentions.”

We Remember Tyler’s Carolyn Davis said the term “woke” indicates awareness and attention, “regardless of how uncomfortable the past may be.”

Carolyn Davis of We Remember Tyler said Black liberation “means black freedom … politically, economically and socially.”

A speaker at the remembrance, Davis said being vigilant means being wakeful.

“There are those who say the term ‘woke’ has a negative connotation … There’s nothing wrong with being attentive … a person who is aware of the past and willing to come face to face with it and acknowledge it, regardless of how uncomfortable the past may be. 

This is how we liberate ourselves, free ourselves and move forward together,” Davis said.

Parade participants sports antique trucks along Martin Luther King Blvd.

Davis called attention to the Civil War monument at Tyler’s downtown square.

“This area was a major center of Confederate activity during the Civil War. The year 1965 is inscribed on the monument, a mere 58 years ago during the Civil Rights era. 

“The term ‘loyal slaves’ is written on that monument. I wonder if any of the people referred to on the monument as loyal slaves ultimately became became a lynching victim?” she asked.

For Davis and other leaders of We Remember Tyler, memorials hold hefty cultural weight. The group advocates for a lynching memorial monument to be erected on the grounds of the future Smith County courthouse. 

Advocates say the monument would recognize the racial terror lynchings in Smith County, bringing dignity to the victims and beginning the first steps of moving towards racial reconciliation. 

The group envisions a granite or marble monument similar to those installed on the square. The monument would include a short history of three victims of racial lynchings on Tyler’s downtown square: Henry Hilliard, Dan Davis and James Hodge.

Hector Garza said an acknowledgement of the atrocities on Tyler’s square is “long, long overdue.”

Hector Garza, the Democratic Chairman of Smith County, vocalized his support for the memorial. 

Garza described the inhumane acts which took place on the very grounds where participants stood. He said Black East Texans continue to await acknowledgement of the acts on behalf of their ancestors.

“This wrong can never ever be corrected. But it can be made known that it was an inhumane injustice that never should have happened. This today would be appropriate and long, long overdue.”

A table set up during the vigil displayed photos and books at Tyler’s second annual lynching vigil presented by We Remember Tyler.

Historic photos of the lynchings and copies of “Tyler’s History of White Supremacy” by DG Montalvo were displayed during the vigil. The book provides an “in-depth look at the horrendous origins of racial conflict in Smith County.” 

Montalvo said he received death threats for releasing the book in 2021.

The Texas African American Museum’s Gloria Washington promotes education and communication for a better future.

Gloria Washington of the Texas African American Museum spoke on restorative justice and public education. Like Montalvo, Washington recounted the importance of educating the public about Black history. For Washington, education and communication are key to Black liberation.

“If you don’t learn your history, you will forget your history, and it has a way of coming back. We have to keep the doors of communication open, so we will all be of one accord,” Washington said.

Uriah Johnson described the incorruptable spirit of Black leaders throughout history.

Keynote speaker Uriah Johnson, a missioner of Christ Episcopal Church, said an enduring spirit has strengthened Black people throughout American history.

“It is the very same spirit that burned in our ancestors; the victims in the Tulsa massacre; here on this very square and all over this country. The spirit that burned in Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., and all the titans of the civil rights movement. And that very same spirit burns in each and every single one of us here today,” Johnson said.

Trio Demetrick Tezino, Karesa Cooper and Paul Haygood performed an original song by Haygood to commemorate the vigil and Tyler’s victims of lynchings.

An a capella vocal performance by Demetrick Tezino, Karesa Cooper and Paul Haygood named local victims of lynchings with a call and response song.

“Who deserves to be here? Henry Hilliard deserves to be here. Us and them is only in your mind.”

Davis said the notion of race is a fabrication in people’s minds, made to justify enslavement.

“A lot of people don’t realize that enslavement actually came before race. They felt like they had to have a reason to justify enslaving another human being, so they came up with these categories. They label the Black race as inferior. Race is a made-up construct. It doesn’t exist,” Davis said.

The Rev. Larry Wade spoke about high numbers of incarcerated Black people and Black military veterans.

The Rev. Larry Wade, the first Black member of the Smith County Historical Society, quoted Maya Angelou and noted two issues for Black communities: the prison industrial complex and militarization in America. 

“I rise above lynchings. I rise above longer jail and prison sentences based mainly on the color of our skin. I rise above fighting in the military in all the wars since the Revolutionary War to the Gulf Wars to Afghanistan – and then to return home from military service as a veteran to still be mistreated as a second class citizen,” Wade said.

Members of the Rose City Warriors cruise through the Juneteenth parade.

Montalvo, the lead researcher of We Remember Tyler, said the 13th Amendment does not protect people from every kind of enslavement.

“In the 13th Amendment, there’s a clause that allows for the prison industrial complex to keep people enslaved and working. And in Tyler, Texas, very few people are aware that we have an actual labor farm run by … the county sheriff. 

“You can go and actually watch prisoners working in fields as if they were plantation hands,” Montalvo said.

Montalvo said the concept of reparations for the Black people is not far-fetched, noting the German government paid remunerations after World War II. He also advocated for demilitarization to enable reparations funding, noting the U.S military budget is upwards of $850 billion a year.

“What if we could do what Martin Luther King Jr. said and help demilitarize the United States so we can provide some of those funds for underprivileged minority communities that have been done wrong?” Montalvo asked.

We Remember Tyler leaders DG Montalvo and Charles Parkes III.

When asked about his idea of Black liberation, Charles Parkes III, associate leader of We Remember Tyler, said, “To me, Black Liberation means to have control of your own destiny, whether it’s spiritual, physical, financial. It’s a journey, not a destination.”

Parkes said one of the chief detracting comments he receives is We Remember Tyler is “just stirring up racial tensions.” For Parkes, a conversation about race and violence is necessary.

“This is a conversation we need to have … whether they’re immigrants, trans or any part of the LGBTQ+ community – because they are also the current victims of violence. Asians were the victims of violence during the height of the coronavirus. This is a reminder where we will go if we don’t remember,” Parkes said.

The Rev. Josef Sorrells concluded the vigil with a prayer.

The vigil concluded with a prayer by the Rev. Josef Sorrells. He prayed, “May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people… May God bless you with tears, to share for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war… that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.”

Parade attendees answer: What does Black liberation mean to you?


“It means everything. We celebrate today about our ancestors being free, the day that emancipation was proclamation, and we celebrate our culture,” Alyssia Howard said.

“Able to express myself.”

“Black liberation means being me.. being able to express myself” Deschuanique Mills said.

“Our past and the future.”

“It’s a celebration of our culture and the accomplishments that we’ve had. It’s us coming together to celebrate our past and look forward to the future,” Janis Lindsey said.

“We’ve come a long way.”

“It means that you can be who you are and that we’ve come a long way from hard circumstances,” Malaysia Stevenson said.


“Black liberation is about freedom… freedom for all,” Donna Walker said.


“Black liberation to me means something free. You’re free of any type of slavery. There’s nothing holding you down.

“This parade is an expression of how a certain culture lives and how they like to express their way of freedom. This is their joy, ” Cherlynn Wheeler said.

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