How Juneteenth Is Being Celebrated in Small Towns Across America

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, but that didn’t mean all enslaved people were set free. In fact, it was nearly three years later before enslaved people in the Confederate state of Texas would be free. That day was June 19, 1865, when 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. They announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were free by executive decree. This glorious day became known as Juneteenth, combining “June” and “19.” It is also called Juneteenth Independence Day, Freedom Day, or Emancipation Day. It was first celebrated in 1866 in Texas.

The last several years, and particularly since the racial reckoning of 2020, Juneteenth has taken on new meaning and significance. There is a push to make it a national holiday–47 states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday and in New York, Texas, Virginia, and Pennsylvania it is an official paid holiday for state employees.

Major celebrations are anticipated in big cities across the country, but small and mid-sized towns are commemorating, too. Here we highlight some of them.

Spartanburg, South Carolina

This city of nearly 38,000 has celebrated Juneteenth since 2015. What was the inspiration for starting the first fete?

“The City of Spartanburg’s population hovers around 50% African American. Our desire was to have something that celebrated this large population of people of color, and nothing does that more than Juneteenth,” says Monier Abusaft, board member of Spartanburg Juneteenth. “In its modern form, Juneteenth celebrates Black excellence and the journey from slavery to where we are now. We wanted something in Spartanburg for the broader community to celebrate that excellence.”

Courtesy of Monier Abusaft, Board Member of Spartanburg Juneteenth

This year’s festivities include a celebration, art show, a community clean-up, and a race seminar. The celebration, to be held in Conway Park, features local flavor and local talent–barbeque and food vendors as well as musical and dance performances. The race seminar, led by a local Black church, includes breakout discussions about the current and future state of race and features Jesmyn Ward’s book, The Fire This Time. There is an essay and poster contest for high school students for a $1,000 scholarship.

Abusaft talks about the importance of Juneteenth, saying, “Black folks are a central part of the fabric of these United States, people that literally built the country with their own hands. Black history is American history. Everybody needs to know that history, not just where we came from but what we’ve achieved. Over the span of 150 years, we went from property to President–the timeline of the ending of slavery to Barrack Obama. That’s the story of America trying to create a more perfect union.”

He says public schools don’t do a great job of teaching Black history, “so we work hard to ensure that at Spartanburg Juneteenth, we not only have a good time, but we educate, fill in those gaps that people don’t know. It’s important for the whole community. There is value in celebrating other people’s cultures and learning more about your own culture. Southern cities aren’t known for progressive ideas, but Spartanburg is the type of place where you can come and find it is more and more inclusive, diverse, creative.”

Interest in Juneteenth has intensified over the past few years and Juneteenth organizers are already looking forward to next year when COVID restrictions are no more. “We’re preparing for two to three times the number of attendees, partnering with our city and county on a larger investment in a series of events including a revival, barbecue competition, and national acts.”

Says Abusaft, “We want to educate the Spartanburg community about African American history, for people to have a good time, and come away with a fuller appreciation for Black excellence.”

Franklin, Tennessee

Franklin, Tennessee is just south of Nashville. The city of around 78,000 has celebrated Juneteenth for the last 16 years. The local African American Heritage Society held celebrations at McLemore House Museum (which was the first home owned by a freed slave, Harvey McLemore). But this year it is taking a considerable step up in scale says Alma McLemore, director of the McLemore House.

New this year is a festival on Franklin’s town square and historic Main Street. The downtown festival is being put on by a local justice and equality coalition and will have events and celebrations throughout the day. The capstone of the festival was to be the unveiling of a new statue honoring the freed slaves who signed up for the U.S. Colored Troop Division of the Army following the Battle of Franklin. Those local troops signed up for service at the local courthouse on the town square, and that is where the statue was set to be unveiled. “Sadly, production delays in recent months have prevented the statue from being ready just yet. The celebration will go on though, as the statue is the latest element of the Fuller Story Project that has been happening in Franklin the last few years,” says McLemore.

 

1. & 2. Nathan Zucker/Visit Franklin;

 

In the town square sits a confederate monument owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. “Following the incidents in Charlottesville, Virginia local pastors and local leaders, including the director of the local Battle of Franklin Trust which manages the historic Civil War sites, came together and the Fuller Story Project was begun to better tell the stories of the Black community that had also happened in that town square. Shortly after, and with the full support of local leaders and the community five historic markers were placed around the town square, telling of the slave markets, riots, and other events that had also taken place there,” says McLemore.

This year, the event will be held at Pinkerton Park and a Juneteenth marker will be unveiled that day to connect to the Juneteenth story. Fort Granger has an entrance through Pinkerton Park and a marker is there presently honoring General Gordon Granger for whom the fort is named. He was the general who declared the news to the enslaved in Galveston that they were free.

Festivities begin on Friday night, June 18 with the inaugural FJEC Juneteenth Gala, a formal affair at Carnton’s Fleming House. Saturday will feature food vendors, live music, a kid’s zone, games, the unveiling of the historic marker, and a health fair. The themed weekend, “Juneteenth@Pinkerton Park, Celebrating Freedom & Standing United in Mind, Body & Spirit” finishes off with a Juneteenth worship service at a local church.

McLemore is excited that Williamson County, the cities of Brentwood, Nolensville, and Spring Hill voted to honor Juneteenth with proclamations this year. “This is huge and is educating the community on the importance of Juneteenth and hopefully generate more awareness. Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom. We are one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all. All should be free; all should appreciate freedom, and all should celebrate freedom.”

Williamsburg, Virginia

“Up until now, in terms of recognizing Juneteenth, the Williamsburg community at large, did not officially celebrate Juneteenth much less recognize its significance,” says Nat Brown, a member of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation and First Baptist Church of Williamsburg.

He says First Baptist Church of Williamsburg has been instrumental in communicating to “non-color persons in the Williamsburg community, the role African Americans have played, and contributed to in the local community. The majority of which had no idea of the church’s establishment by enslaved and free Africans in the eighteenth century, nor its subsequent historical role in the following centuries.”

There was a concerted effort by the pastor, who preached about Juneteenth and its significance for African Americans, and the Let Freedom Ring Foundation (independent of and associated with First Baptist Church of Williamsburg), to inform and educate the local Black community about Juneteenth, says Brown. This year marks the first formal official community-wide celebration of Juneteenth.

“The African American experience and historical past had been suppressed for 400 years. As a result, because of systemic conscientious repression and suppression, economically, socially, and racially by the white population there is not enough comprehension of the significance of Juneteenth,” says Brown.

The first celebration in this town of just under 15,000 people comes at a pivotal time. “Because of the murder of George Floyd, as well as the murders of other African Americans, the national and international outrage has placed a momentary spotlight on the plight of African Americans in this country,” says Brown.

The goal, he adds, “Is to usher in awareness, education of, [and emphasize] the importance of this event to the community, the need to continue this celebration each year, and to acknowledge contributions that African Americans have made and continue to make to this country.”

2020 The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Festivities on June 19 start at 10 a.m. on Market Square in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area with music and a keynote address given by Professor Robert Watson of Hampton University on the meaning of Juneteenth. This hour-long program is free and open to the public, presented in partnership by William & Mary, the Let Freedom Ring Foundation, the city, and Colonial Williamsburg.

Next up is a cookout at Chowning’s Tavern on Market Square, featuring a menu curated by award-winning food historian and chef Michael Twitty. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation will donate a portion of the proceeds from the Michael Twitty Juneteenth cookout to the Village Initiative for Equity in Education.

There will be a performance at the Play House Stage on Palace Green by Colonial Williamsburg’s Museum Theatre Department of Loquacious Lucy, the story of an enslaved child who learns her friend has been sold. “Remembrance: Honoring the Voices,” will feature live presentations of oral history to honor and preserve the voices of the Williamsburg community. Musical performances and more are planned throughout the day.

There is also a virtual commemorative program, which can be streamed live at WM.edu. In addition to these activities, the York-James City-Williamsburg NAACP branch will host an 8:30 a.m. motor parade featuring classic and exotic cars from Hampton Roads Customs. Many locally owned businesses will be promoted as well. The parade begins in Highland Park and will continue along Lafayette Street and down Richmond Road before ending near Merchants Square.

Elsewhere Around the Country

Lake Placid, New York

John Brown moved to the Adirondacks to help free Black New Yorkers start a new life in the fresh mountain air. His farm is open to the public, with hiking trails, a museum, and memorials. To celebrate Juneteenth, walk through a memorial field of markers that bear silent witness to some of the hundreds of Black lives ended in recent years due to police violence and vigilantism. Also planned are a barbeque, activities for the whole family, and entertainment.

Goldsboro, North Carolina

This inaugural event will highlight Black commerce, talent, and creativity in a celebration designed to shed “light on all the beautiful things that brown skin creates.” The event includes a car show, food vendors, a cook-off, hip-hop, and R&B performances, and an apparel pop-up. Held at a park with a playground, Juneteenth in the Boro adds family appeal with bouncy houses and free food for kids.

Alexandria, Virginia

Alexandria has several events planned. Two highlights: “Day of Jubilee!” on June 17 and “Tell Me Your Name” on June 18. “Day of Jubilee!” features performances of “Sounds of Hope & Harmony” in the Secret Garden at the Rectory; Classical Movements will be hosting this uplifting and festive musical celebration of Juneteenth with the Coalition for African Americans in the Performing Arts. It will feature texts by Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King, Jr. and music by composers Margaret Bonds and Adolphus Hailstork.

“Tell Me Your Name” focuses on the experiences of the enslaved community at Carlyle House and the city founder’s plantations.

West Palm Beach, Florida

Rohi’s Readery, a social-justice driven bookstore dedicated to critical literacy, inclusivity, and diversity, is opening on June 19 in honor of Juneteenth in Rosemary Square. The store will feature a curated selection of books focused on diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racist practice and books with characters in shades of Black and Brown, shedding light on those with disabilities, representing the LGBTQIA+ community, and presenting authentic historical content that has been previously suppressed. The opening event will include an interactive lesson introducing the history and relevance of Juneteenth, Revolutionary Storytime reading, as well as a follow-up activity for families to engage in conversations and extend their thinking beyond the lesson.

Davenport, Iowa

The Friends of MLK, Inc. Davenport, IA (FoMLK) will host the Quad Cities Juneteenth Festival at Lincoln Center – TMBC. The festival includes food, retail vendors, history, information booths, games, and entertainment for the whole family.

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