Opelika and Auburn community members and several hundred citizens gathered at the Opelika Courthouse Square behind the Lee County Courthouse to hold a Juneteenth celebration on Friday afternoon.
The event featured music, dancers, Black-owned vendors and a voter registration drive.
The local celebration was organized by Opelika councilwoman Tiffany Gibson-Pitts and Janataka Holmes of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Lee County, who were featured speakers as part of the schedule, as well as Rep. Jeremy Gray of Alabama House District 83. Gray was unable to attend, and his sister filled in for his absence and spoke in his place.
"A lot of people never knew about Juneteenth until now with everything that's happening," Gibson-Pitts said. "Just educating our community on the African American culture and our history I think is very needed, because they don't get a lot of this in the schools. As a community, we just decided to come together to teach everybody about African American culture."
As more people filled in the park square, they decorated its fountain and paths with chalk writing and protest signs. Organizers provided masks and hand sanitizer to those in need to promote safe participation in the event.
Vendors sold homemade desserts, lemonade, and clothing featuring Juneteenth and Black Lives Matter designs among other offerings. Barbara Griffin, owner of Our Time Accessory Tees and Event Rentals, was among them and sold wholesale jewelry at her booth.
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"Today was a day that we could just come out and support each other, and we're grateful for that," Griffin said. "Black businesses supporting each other."
Students had a presence at the Juneteenth celebration as well. Black sororities Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta set up tables near the vendors, and the Auburn-Opelika Democratic Socialists of America provided free brake light and taillight changes to those interested.
The program was officially under way at 5:30 p.m., commencing with songs from Black artists. On one occasion, Opelika police officers joined in the celebration to dance with attendees as the song "Cha Cha Slide" by DJ Casper played.
"Today is a day to remember, a day to remember our ancestors, a day of freedom," said Holmes as she spoke to the crowd. "It's a day that all of us, each of us, can make a difference. This is not a day just on today, it is a day that's on forever, making everybody free."
Holmes asked those listening to also remember the last few months as they celebrated the day's events.
"I want you to remember eight minutes and forty-six seconds; I want you to remember two minutes and twelve seconds," she said, referencing the deaths of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, who were killed by police officers in Minneapolis and Atlanta respectively. "I want you to remember those times because we the people can make a difference."
Holmes was followed by other speakers on stage, such as Joshua Lewis, pastor of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Notasulga, Alabama, who led the crowd in song. Richard Curry, president of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Lee County, encouraged attendees to donate to the organization to show support.
Richard Trammell, director of the Auburn Area Community Theatre, provided spirited spoken word poetry to end off the speeches.
"Awareness is important," Trammell said during his poetry. "Black bodies don't police public spaces, we're too busy being watched. 'Stay alert, stay alive.' That was my father's message, constantly testing my survival skills — teaching me to look out for the signs, the flags, the traps, the unconventional ways of extending my life — teaching me not only how to live, but how to stay alive."
Event leaders called for a short march around 6:42 p.m., heading northeast on Avenue A to South 7th Street near Opelika City Hall, then back to the park square via Avenue B. Chants such as "Hands up; don't shoot" echoed those heard during protests in Auburn in the past several weeks.
As participants marched down Avenue B, a preacher from the First Baptist Church of Opelika called out to them from the sidewalk with a sermon, joined by members of the congregation with signs of Bible verse.
Gibson-Pitts ended the main celebration just after 7 p.m. by surprising the crowd with an announcement that she intends to run as a candidate in the next Opelika mayoral election. The event remained peaceful, with the Opelika Police Department blocking off roads for the march and acting as security around the park square for the celebration.
Juneteenth, a non-federal American holiday which celebrates the freeing of many slaves after the Civil War, has received much more attention this year as protests and marches for racial equity have spread across the country.
The date of the holiday commemorates June 19, 1865, the day when Union Army general Gordon Granger read aloud a federal order in Galveston, Texas, proclaiming that all of the slaves in Texas were to be freed.
The Emancipation Proclamation, which had been signed more than two years earlier, had officially freed the slaves held in then-Confederate territory, but news of the proclamation did not reach the rural parts of Texas until 1865.
"This is our freedom, this is our Fourth of July," Gibson-Pitts said. "We celebrate Fourth of July for a reason, and we should, but also Juneteenth is when slaves were actually free."
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