WHILE AN upcoming celebration of Juneteenth in Savannah this weekend represents a continuing effort to remind us of the importance of the annual celebration, the story of Juneteenth itself is defined by its significance as a milestone in American history.
The day June 19, 1865 stands as the date when the last slaves were freed. Since then, Juneteenth, as it came to be called, has come to symbolize the struggle for freedom that defined generations of people within the United States. Today, it is celebrated in more than 200 cities across America including Savannah.
Savannah has been participating in the annual celebration since 2009 by hosting its own festival in the 38th Street Park, which is organized every year by The Daughters of Mary Magdalene.
This organization consists of individuals who have a special interest in helping the city to continue growing in a positive direction.
Among them is Ivan Cohen, the secretary of the Daughters of Mary Magdalene, who seems to have an even deeper connection to the festival than others.
“When I was younger, this is the park that I came to a lot, this festival enables me to give back to the area,” he says.
The location was specifically chosen in order to attract those who represent a community of people that may feel neglected at times.
“It’s important to let them know that they are a part of this city and that they count,” says Cohen.
As usual, the festival will feature a variety of activities that will be free and open to the public. These activities will include educational and fun amusements for children provided by the ILA local chapter 1414, complemented by the free food that will be provided by Comcast.
Also, there will be live musical entertainment featuring genres, such as funk, gospel, and hip-hop, intended to appeal to people of all ages.
In addition to entertainment, there will also be a number of honorees who will be recognized for their dedication to the community with the Georgia Outstanding Citizens Award. Among those honorees is Jordan Ogden who as a Savannah native feels a special need to give her time to the city as they host the festival.
“It’s always hot out there, but you forget about the heat and have fun. So I’m honored that they’ll have me come back this time in a different capacity”, she says.
Ogden has participated in the festival since 2013, when in 2014 as the director of the Miss Black Georgia Pageant, she has emceed the activities and helped lead spelling bees for students.
Now as the owner of the Impressum School of Social Graces, she continues to use her roles as tools for bettering the youth.
“I’m big on youth being self-aware, knowing what their talents are, and speaking and communicating with confidence,” says Ogden.
Brian Dawsey, who is the assistant director of Admissions for Recruitment at Savannah State University, will also be honored at the festival.
“I was in awe when I found out they would be honoring me this year”, he says. Dawsey has been participating in the festival for the past six years and emphasizes how important the history of Juneteenth is.
“We must know this, we must learn this and we must not be afraid. If you don’t know your history you are liable to repeat it” says Dawsey.
As a Savannah native also who only grew up a few blocks down from the 38th Street Park, he feels a special connection to that community itself and recognizes its needs.
“The area is very impoverished, it’s a lot of kids whose families are barely making ends meet,” says Dawsey. In his role within the Office of Admissions, he has made it a priority to help young students to overcome those odds by helping them to further their education.
While the honorees and activities are important to the festival, the most important thing to many of those involved is to continue to emphasize the history of the celebration.
As historian Dr. Jamal Toure says, “It’s important for people to know the past, you have to tell them your history.”
This year as the reader of the history of the Juneteenth during the festival and an expert on African-American and U.S. history, Toure views this event as an opportunity to inspire people towards continued progress.
“It’s about continuing the story, to let people know that you are not limited to any boundary,” he says.
This story he refers to is one defined by the perseverance and patience of countless enslaved African-Americans in the face of obvious challenges. Following the secession of several Southern states, President Abraham Lincoln looked for ways to cease the rebellion and bring the nation back together.
He decided that he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862 to notify the rebellious states that they would need to cease their actions or their slaves would be declared free on January 1, 1863.
Despite this threat, those Confederate states would not back down and the Civil War would begin to intensify. This resistance would be the cause of a prolonged journey to freedom for many slaves.
At least 8000,000 slaves were unaffected by the proclamation either because it only specified the freeing of slaves in rebellious states or because their state simply ignored it. Instead it would take until the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th amendment before slavery would be formally outlawed across the United States.
The last slaves would be freed in Texas when General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston on Juneteenth and issued General Order No.3 to inform the slaves of their freedom over two years after the signing of the proclamation.
This history is what makes the Juneteenth festival so significant and also why this year’s theme, Reclaim, Re-educate, Rebuild! represents a larger meaning.