While Americans nationwide get ready to celebrate the country’s freedom on July 4, another lesser-known Independence Day was celebrated last weekend.
As with all national holidays, there is more to Juneteenth than what appears on the surface. Observed in many regions of the country, Juneteenth commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery on June 19, 1865. Today, Juneteenth is recognized as a special day or state holiday in 45 states.
“There is a popular saying that goes, ‘if you don’t know your history, you are doomed to repeat it.’ Juneteenth isn’t just about the history of African Americans; it’s also the history of the United States of America,” said community leader Brenda Keeling.
Dr. Martin Luther King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an African American civil rights organization, in 1957. From day one, its mission has been to “advance the cause of civil rights in America, but in a non-violent manner.”
The Roanoke Chapter of the SCLC held its annual Juneteenth event on June 15 at Washington Park. More than 400 people showed up to learn, pray, eat and dance.
During each hour of the celebration, someone – be it a Gospel rapper, a longtime Roanoke Valley resident or event coordinator – graced the stage.
Said Keeling, the SCLC treasurer, “As a planner, it was important for me to make sure this year’s event was both entertaining and informative. It took about six months, but all of the hard work paid off. I was thrilled to see so many community leaders present, from Mayor Lea to local councilmembers.”
Businesses such as Pepsi and Wal-Mart provided items, food and volunteers. Thy Jordan, store manager of the Salem Wal-Mart, said she was immediately on board once the SCLC reached out and explained what they were trying to accomplish.
“I am responsible for all of the associates, among other things. Many store employees offered to help as soon as it was brought to their attention,” Jordan said. “We offered many food items that customers can purchase from our deli – hamburgers, potato salad, chicken and coleslaw. We also reached out to other vendors to get them involved too.”
It was in 2011 that Roderick Jackson experienced his first Juneteenth Celebration at Washington Park. The father of four was aware of its significance but wanted his children to have a better understanding of Juneteenth.
“Just using words to make a point only goes so far,” he said. “I wanted my kids to experience Juneteenth up close and personal. Seeing them interact with people of all ethnicities and ages just made my heart melt.”
Few things excite Perneller Chubb-Wilson, 85, like explaining history to those seeking to learn. When asked to describe Juneteenth to someone who isn’t familiar, Chubb-Wilson, President of the SCLC Roanoke Chapter, said, “In a nutshell, it’s an opportunity to learn about African Americans and our history.”
Washington Park has hosted an annual Juneteenth event since 2004. Why that location? Because as Chubb-Wilson put it, “there was a time when this was one of the few places where blacks were allowed. If we don’t use it, it can be taken away.”