Community BBQ

Juneteenth at Mama Sugar's

The Juneteenth tradition is still going strong at Mama Sugar's ranch in Fresno.

By Robb Walsh June 20, 2013

My first plate at Mama Sugar's Juneteenth BBQ was loaded with a smoked pork chop and a rib on a bed of beans, cabbage, and green beans. My second plate was a sausage link and a chicken thigh with black-eyed peas and collard greens. Sadly, I missed out on the banana pudding and had to make do with the cookie cake.

The food is one reason why the Juneteenth BBQ at Mama Sugar's little horse ranch just south of Pearland on Trammel-Fresno Road is one my favorite parties of the year. This is where I first met photographer O Rufus Lovett while we were both working on an article for Gourmet magazine in 2006.

The dessert table at Mama Sugar's Juneteenth party in 2006

Mama Sugar carving ribs in 2006

The state holiday known as Juneteenth (short for June 19th) commemorates the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and read a proclamation announced the freeing of the slaves. The slaves had actually been free for over a year, but nobody told them until Granger showed up with troops to enforce the law.

For over a century the date was celebrated among African-Texans with Juneteenth parades, pageants, and barbecues. Because blacks were barred from congregating in public parks, Juneteenth celebrations were often held out in the country on private ranches. Horseback riding and cowboy riding gear became a part of the Juneteenth tradition.

The black holiday had largely died out by the early 1960s. But Juneteenth was revived on June 19, 1968, the final day of the Poor Peoples’ March on Washington, when Reverend Ralph Abernathy called for people of all races to show solidarity. Since then, Juneteenth celebrations have spread across the country. The holiday is big in Milwaukee and Minneapolis, among other places. In 1980, it became an official state holiday in Texas.

The spirit of Juneteenth is sort of a cross between Martin Luther King Day, Passover, and the 4th of July—a celebration of African-American heritage and freedom from slavery. At Mama Sugar's, that means barbecue, music, and dancing.

Members of the Houston Chapter of the 9th and 10th Cavalry Association came to talk about their organization. During the American Civil War, the Union Army created troops of black soldiers popularly known as the Buffalo Soldiers. After the war, two regiments of black mounted soldiers, the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry, were formed, along with several regiments of black infantry. The modern association was formed by descendants of the original soldiers. Lt. Kelly (with the white mustache) told me that the group will be leading the final part of the Rodeo trailride next year.

At this year's annual symposium, Foodways Texas gave the Lifetime Achievement Award to Mama Sugar, whose formal name is Nathan Jean Whittaker Sanders. Mama Sugar founded the Sugar Shack Trailblazers in 1983, a trail-riding club that's now a part of the Southwestern Trail Riders Association.

Foodways Texas produced a short documentary film to a tell some of Mama Sugar’s story. The movie by Keeley Steensen recounts the Sanders family’s East Texas cooking traditions and includes footage shot at last year's Juneteenth birthday party. This year, Keeley showed the film at the party. As you can imagine, it was big hit.

Mama Sugar from Foodways Texas on Vimeo.


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