On June 19, 1865 — two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — Union soldiers told enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, the war had ended and they were free.
Now, the day is known as “Juneteenth” and is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of American slavery.
In Chatham County, 155 years later, the third annual Juneteenth event was hosted by Chatham Organizing for Racial Equity (CORE) in partnership with Chatham County Public Health Department.
This year, protests over police brutality in response to George Floyd’s death and national conversations about race led to this day being more widely observed across the country than in years past. It’s not a national holiday, but among local banks, for example, BB&T let customers know in an email they were closing early so their employees could observe Juneteenth and the Bank of America Corp. said employees could take a personal day off.
“Though it has long been celebrated among the African American community, it is a history that has been marginalized and still remains largely unknown to the wider public,” The National Museum of African American History and Culture said in a post Friday.
Because of coronavirus pandemic and limitations on gathering sizes, this year’s Chatham Juneteenth was very different from previous years. The event took place over two days: 300 meals from Zweli’s Kitchen & Catering in Durham were distributed across the county Friday and a virtual Juneteenth program was provided on a virtual conference call Saturday that began at 10:30 a.m.
Aspects of black culture, African-American spirituality and arts were presented by several Chatham County performers and an African Dance company from Durham via recorded performances. The event also included a presentation from the Chatham County Health Department, a question-and-answer session on living wills and testaments and a community conversation facilitated by the Equity and Community Engagement Initiatives Lead of the health department.
CORE is a multi-racial group of Chatham residents that works to build awareness of personal, cultural and systemic racism to create a more equitable Chatham, according to its website.
CORE member Shvaughn Ross, who helped organize the event, said some virtual attendees experienced connectivity issues — evidence of Chatham’s broadband issues being emphasized during stay-at-home orders and a rise in virtual meetings. Still, she said she received a lot of positive feedback from people, particularly regarding the drumming workshop by Diali Cissokho and Will Ridenour and performances by dancer Keisha Degraffenreaidt and Garvy-Sissa West African Drum and Dance Ensemble.
At one point, Ross said she saw 68 people were streaming the event, a number she was pleased with. Ross said she hopes events like this one will inspire community conversations about race and systemic racism.
“Hopefully this event opened the door for those conversations, but not only do we need to have conversations, we need to take action,” she said. “We can talk all day — we can talk about it, we can think about it, but unless we have some action behind what we’re talking about and solving problems, it’s really not going to do anything.”
Last year, the Chatham County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution in support of the Juneteenth Community Remembrance and Celebration. Commissioner Jim Crawford, who holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from UNC-Chapel Hill, introduced the resolution.
“I love that in Chatham we are making strides in celebrating and honoring the valuable contributions of African Americans in this nation and learning our history is integral to that,” Commission Chairperson Karen Howard said at the time.
Crawford, who spoke at last year’s in-person Juneteenth event, told the News + Record he was very pleased with the growth of the event and grateful to all the CORE organizers who pushed to make the event happen.
“There are folks who have been diligent and consistent and firm through at least half a decade now — this didn’t arrive from nowhere,” he said. Crawford noted Chatham’s history of white supremacy, referencing the six recorded lynchings in the county and segregated schools. Still, he said he was proud of the county for times they’ve acted, such as when the Confederate monument was removed from in front of the Pittsboro Courthouse last November.
The motion made to remove the statue was introduced by Crawford in August and passed 4-1, with only Commissioner Andy Wilkie dissenting.
“These values once ruled Chatham County, and now they no longer rule,” Crawford said.
Last week, Chatham resident Lea Ciceraro started a GoFundMe to raise money for a “Black Lives Matter” billboard on U.S. Hwy. 64 East Business Route in Pittsboro, next to a Confederate flag. Ciceraro originally aimed to raise $6,500, the cost of having the billboard up for one year. After reaching full funding in two days, Ciceraro updated the goal to include $2,000 toward a scholarship fund to support racial equity efforts in Chatham.
Ross also mentioned the flying of Confederate flags around Chatham and said the flag doesn’t represent the entirety of the county. She said celebrations such as the Juneteenth event should lead to the continued discussion of these matters.
“I never thought in a million years that I’d be raising a child in 2020 and she has to see this on a daily basis,” Ross said. “It’s hurtful — it’s disheartening that I have to have these conversations with her today.”
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