NeVaeh Akers-Atkins offered a simple explanation for why she was at a local Juneteenth event last week.
“It’s very important to me,” the 11-year-old said. “It shows people that we should be treated the same.”
She was with families and friends at the first annual Juneteenth Family Day Celebration in Wesley Chapel’s Union Park community.
The event was held to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States, which occurred on June 19, 1865.
Juneteenth is also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day.
The inaugural celebration at Union Park came together in two weeks of whirlwind planning by residents and members of Carmel Friendship Church.
Songs, dance, music, food, prayer, prizes and fellowship filled a day of activities from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., on June 19, at the Union Park clubhouse on Bering Road.
“We’re having one big celebration,” said organizer Melissa Akers-Atkins. “It’s one of many to come.”
The program included 16-year-old Miranda Archibald, who read the poem, “We Rose,” by Kristina Kay.
And, Aniya Stratford, of Carmel Friendship Church, sang, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” which often is referred to as the Black national anthem.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, freeing slaves living in the Confederate states.
But, the news in those days traveled slowly, or in some instances, wasn’t acknowledged by slave owners.
On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers came ashore at Galveston, Texas, and announced the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery. The date was 2 ½ years after Lincoln’s proclamation.
A few months later, on Dec. 6, 1865, the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery everywhere. The following year, Juneteenth celebrations, often hosted by African-American churches, took root.
Many states now recognize the holiday. A campaign is underway now for Congress to declare Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
“It makes me happy that it’s finally being recognized locally as a holiday,” said Jamila Wright, owner of Writz Jewelry. “With everything that’s going on, it’s very important that people in general learn more about our history. I think it should be a federal holiday.”
Wright was among several black-owned businesses at the Union Park event.
Food truck owners for Wing Box, Craving Donuts and Sun’s Just Egg Rolls rolled into the clubhouse parking lot.
Vendors and sponsors included Writz Jewelry, QDP Photography, Mary Kay, Red Robin, Sign Dreamers of Wesley Chapel, and Julie’s African Hair Braiding.
Carmel Friendship Church and Union Park Charter Academy had informative displays.
Kat Stylez (her author’s name) set up a table with artwork and her first book of poetry, “Girl, Who Hurt You?”
Raising awareness of the importance of Juneteenth was one of the organizers’ goals. But, they also want to foster unity, a sense of safety, and civic participation through voting.
“We are blessed,” said organizer Tabatha Johnson. “It is important to showcase this celebration. This is the day for African-Americans. But, the celebration is not to dismiss any other culture or race.”
The recent deaths of black men by police officers, including George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, the Black Lives Matter movement and street protests brought greater attention to the Juneteenth celebrations this year.
For Faraasha Bell, 13, Juneteenth “means that we get to learn how other people got treated and how other people experience it.”
She had Brooks’ death in mind when she said, “I see it on the news and how terrifying it is.”
Markee Duncan, 36, gave testimony as a 6-foot-5 black man who is “two shades darker than 8:30 p.m.”
Growing up in South Carolina, he said blacks were told not to look white people in the eye and to move across the street to avoid unnecessary contact.
“In history class all I learned about is men who didn’t look like me,” Duncan said.
He said he has been pulled over by police while driving in largely white neighborhoods. “The melanin of my skin didn’t allow me the same rights as those in the Constitution.”
Akers-Atkins said organizers hope to host a Juneteenth celebration annually at Union Park. But, they also want to host other cultural events through the year.
Johnson said: “We do have faith that we will continue to grow, to know we are here and can help each other. It’s important to have empathy. I love seeing so much diversity in our community.”
Published June 24, 2020