People have celebrated Juneteenth for years, but Saturday was the first time that Auburn residents gathered to the scale they did to remember and celebrate the emancipation of slaves.
NAACP leaders, City leaders and community members all met in Sam Harris Park on Saturday for an inaugural Juneteenth celebration in Auburn, days after President Joe Biden signed a bill declaring the day a national holiday.
“I’m grateful that you're all here; I’m grateful for all the faces that I see here today,” said Mayor Ron Anders. “We’re going to move forward as a better and tighter and more loving and caring, respectful community. And we’re sure not going to let a tropical storm get in our way.”
All the festivities — including several speeches and performances, a raffle and a large selection of food — were held under the pavilion in the park, out of the rain, except for the vendors, who were strung through the park under tents, selling handmade goods or, like the Lee County Democratic Club, registering people to vote.
Ward 1 Council member Connie Fitch-Taylor worked for a month with members of her community to plan the event.
“It took a lot of work, but I'm so thankful that, even with the work, we had people to step up and volunteer,” Taylor said. “Today has just been a great day, even though the rain came in and everything, it’s well worth it — and it’s long coming.”
About an hour into the event, Joshua Lewis, pastor at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, led the crowd in singing the Black National Anthem:
“Lift every voice and sing
'Till Earth and heaven ring;
Ring with the harmonies of liberty
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies
Let it resound, loud as the rolling sea.”
The day was one of both celebration and remembrance. The Plantation Heirs performed two songs: "Oh, Freedom" and "Go Down Moses."
One community member recited Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” while Terrence Vickerstaff spoke about the history of slavery in Auburn, beginning with the first enslaved Africans that were shipped to America.
“It is in our DNA that there’s a little story that needs to be told about the ancestors and how they survived and how they struggled,” Vickerstaff said. “How they sought freedom and how they built communities and how they are the reasons we are here today.”
Vickerstaff continued, sharing the story of the slaves who built much of early Auburn, speaking without a microphone and over the sound of the rain.
“That’s where we are, that’s our story, and that’s why we celebrate Juneteenth, y’all,” he said. “We celebrate to liberate. We remember to respond. We remember to rise up. We remember so we can rally together. We remember so something in us will rise up.”
Juneteenth — the celebration and the history behind it — has only recently made headlines, and this year, it was made both a national and state holiday in Alabama. It has, for many, been left out of their formal education, so the celebration in Auburn on Saturday — the first of its kind for the city — was a chance to learn.
“It gives you something to think about,” said Lettie Jones, a longtime Auburn community member. “See, a lot of people don’t really know about Juneteenth … I’ll tell you something, I didn’t hear it in high school history. I didn’t. So this is an experience for me, and I’ve been reading up on it a little bit.”
The City of Auburn is also expected to recognize Juneteenth as a city holiday next year, City Manager Megan Crouch said on Saturday.
But although Juneteenth is not yet recognized as a holiday by the City, Anders signed a proclamation on Saturday recognizing the day as Juneteenth, as the City Council did last year.
Sam Harris, the namesake of the event's location, longtime Auburn public servant and former City Council member who helped bring the City's first parks to Ward 1, attended the celebration.
Harris said he was excited to see the event held at the park.
“I think it’s pretty amazing,” he said. “What I’ve seen, to me, … it’s almost like a family. And you know, that's what it's all about.”
Taylor said that there is still work to be done in the community.
“We have come a long way,” Taylor said. “We have come a long way. But we know we’ve got a long ways to go.”
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