Dorena Williamson of Franklin has undertaken several jobs in her life.
Top of her list of accomplishments: She’s a mother of four adult children between the ages of 18 and 28. She’s also the first lady of a Nashville church and a part-time stylist. She was previously a longtime social worker.
Her newest profession? It found her.
“I started feeling this sense of maybe I can help,” Williamson said. “Not in a prideful capacity… I just have a heart to continue growing and learning and helping other people do the same.”
Because of personal and career experiences, she knew the questions children asked and what parents were tasked with answering. And as a co-planter and leader of multiracial Strong Tower Bible Church, she knew what white parents struggled to discuss, especially when it comes to race in America.
So, she started writing children’s books.
Her sixth and most recent effort, “The Story of Juneteenth,” published right at a time when the holiday has entered the consciousness of more non-Black people than ever before.
In just 250 words over 24 pages, the “board book” made specifically for small children with thick, cardboard pages, provides context and history of the holiday to children ages two through five.
Williamson: ‘How do you explain to babies and little children that people were enslaved?’
Last summer, following the declaration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday by President Joe Biden, Williamson was invited to write the book.
She had just experienced Franklin’s first city-sponsored Juneteenth event, as well as the high of a hallmark United States Colored Troops monument finally being installed at the city’s Public Square, thanks to the work of her husband, pastor Chris Williamson and other local leaders of faith .
Although she had two other books in the works, two of her children’s weddings, her youngest child’s graduation and so much more in the year to come, she couldn’t turn down the opportunity to write on the subject.
“How do you explain to babies and little children that people were enslaved? How do you not shy away from the fact that it was absolutely horrible?” she asked rhetorically. “It was a challenge. I was willing to accept because I felt like babies, toddlers, pre-readers deserve to begin understanding what this is all about.”
She hopes the book acts as something that isn’t all-encompassing, but a starting point.
Franklin author: ‘Remember the joy and the hope that freedom brings’
“The Story of Juneteenth” focuses on the joy felt by Black people when they learned their freedom, and the joy felt when Juneteenth is celebrated today by all people.
Its language, Williamson said, is easily digestible for young kids. She hopes parents will read it with children, especially the crucial moments of contrast.
In one section, Williamson and illustrator Markia Jenai portraying the celebration of “Watch Night” on New Year’s Eve 1862 (also called “Freedom’s Eve,” which is still celebrated by many Black faith communities) as Abraham Lincoln’s executive order freeing enslaved people in Confederate states went into effect, while in the next, they show the visible sadness of others who continued to be in chains for two more years in Texas.
“Hopefully as children get older and they say, ‘Well, why didn’t the parents receive the news?’, explaining that that wasn’t fair… And use that as an opportunity to build on the work of justice that continues today,” she said.
“(Black people) remember the joy and the hope that freedom brings because we continue the work so justice and freedom and equality continue.”
While the Juneteenth holiday arrives at a timely moment of increased awareness and interest this year, it also follows months of challenges by adults against children’s books that touch on issues of race, identity and American history, especially in schools and among lawmakers, both locally and nationally.
Williamson hopes her work can be a reminder that people want to know the truth about history, that many want help and company in doing so, and that families have the power to educate on the truth at home.
“Books are an incredible way to do that,” she said. “They’re incredible launching pads for these types of stories.”
More on Franklin author Dorena Williamson
Visit her website: https://dorenawilliamson.com
Purchase “The Story of Juneteenth” by visiting: https://www.worthykids.com
Anika Exum is a reporter covering Williamson County at The Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network — Tennessee. Reach her at email@example.com, 615-347-7313 or on Twitter @aniexum. To stay updated on Williamson County news, sign up for our newsletter.