One of the most important days in African American history will be observed and celebrated this Saturday at Auburn’s Sam Harris Park.
Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day, is a holiday celebrating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the Confederate States of America.
It is commemorated on June 19, the day Union Major Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and proclaimed all slaves were free in 1865.
City Councilwoman Connie Fitch Taylor wanted to do something to honor Juneteenth and share why it’s so important with the community.
She decided to spearhead a Juneteenth celebration that will run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the park on Foster Street.
This is the first year Taylor is organizing such a celebration, which she hopes will become an annual event.
“I think that we’re past due for an event like this,” Taylor said. “I’m just hoping people will understand why it’s so important to black people that this holiday is celebrated.”
The event is free to the public. There will be entertainment, games, food and music.
The guest speaker will be Dr. Terrance D. Vickerstaff, an eighth-generation descendant of families who were part of the initial enslaved settlers in Auburn.
“Everyone from every nationality, race, is invited to come out to attend,” Taylor said.
Vickerstaff said Saturday’s event is needed “in order to continue to bring the community together around not only our history, but our future.”
Juneteenth and other emancipation days remind African Americans of what transpired in history, and how it can be used as a catalyst moving forward.
“Juneteenth ... begins an understanding of what Reconstruction looked like. How we prospered. How we were able to forge communities out of nothing. How we were able to take freedom and allow it to be the catalyst to mark our place here in history,” Vickerstaff said. “For me, it’s a reminder of what my ancestors went through for me. It’s a reminder that freedom is not free. It’s a reminder that somebody paid the price by being enslaved for me.
“For Auburn, it’s real special to me because my family came over in the winter of 1836 with the initial settlers as enslaved people. It’s critical that we teach the next generation from whence we’ve come.”
Elijah Gaddis is an assistant professor of history at Auburn University who wrote his dissertation on post emancipation African American celebratory culture.
Gaddis said Juneteenth is interesting because it’s one of, what at one time, were several localized celebrations of emancipation that, over time, spread into one that is nationally recognized.
Prior to Juneteenth, many other enslaved people across the nation — first with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the end of the Civil War in 1865 — celebrated Emancipation Day. Emancipation Day usually was celebrated around the first of the year because the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863.
At first, such celebrations memorialized freedom and the end of slavery. Over time, they evolved into a commemoration of the history of enslavement and the visibility of African American communities.
“Particularly, as we really started seeing the onset of Jim Crow in the very late 19th and early 20th centuries, Emancipation Day became a way for African American communities to remember where they had been, remember slavery, but also to project themselves forward by claiming a right to this public space through parades, by showing off their most talented speakers and their most talented students,” Gaddis said. “And then, just by celebrating together with big feasts and bands.”
By the late 1970s, as other localized emancipation celebrations were dying down, Juneteenth was being celebrated across the nation.
“Juneteenth then became more and more a celebration not of this kind of local particularities, but rather a celebration of African American culture more broadly,” Gaddis said.
Saturday’s event is part of a broader trend of Juneteenth celebrations, said Gaddis, adding that he hopes more people will recognize not only how important emancipation itself was, but how important the years after it were.
“The more that we can do in Auburn and elsewhere to really highlight that significant part of our shared cultural heritage the better, especially since I think so much of this has either been lost or ignored or is in danger of being lost or ignored,” Gaddis said. “I’m hopeful that this represents a moment of much more recognition of this really important, historical and cultural event.”