Juneteenth's celebration of freedom draws diverse crowd

June 19, 2006|By LAURA MCCANDLISH | LAURA MCCANDLISH,SUN REPORTER

Verna Day-Jones, who boasted the title of Ms. Senior Maryland last year, arrived with a rhinestone tiara atop her silver locks, walking in gold embroidered slippers with the help of a cane.

Recent hip-replacement surgery didn't stop the Northwest Baltimore resident - an actress and retired Social Security Administration employee who didn't come out to play a beauty queen yesterday.

Instead, she transformed herself into a compelling Harriet Tubman for the Juneteenth Commemoration, in its fourth year at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.

Re-enacting Tubman's role with the Underground Railroad, Day-Jones - who turns 82 Thursday - said to an actress playing a slave, "Come along, join the freedom train, 'cause old Harriet, she's going to take you to the land where you belong."

A diverse group of at least 100 people attended the celebration of Juneteenth, the nation's oldest, yet often overlooked, African-American holiday.

The holiday marks the end of slavery after the Civil War, as slaves in Galveston, Texas, learned on June 19, 1865, that they had been freed. Though President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had become law some 2 1/2 years earlier, it was slow to spread through the Confederacy.

At the other end of the age spectrum from Day-Jones was Lawren Leslie Beane, 10, crowned Ms. Juneteenth for the second year in a row. The sixth-grader from Southeast Baltimore wore a cobalt-blue and gold-colored tunic, skirt and headscarf made in the African country of Togo, and was joined by her parents, grandmother and several cousins.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to introduce her to something she hadn't learned about in school," said Lawren's mother, Tira Beane, 39. "This was a little-known black history fact that has become a major thing."

Juneteenth is not an official holiday in Maryland, nor is it federally recognized. In 1980, Texas became the first state to declare the day a sanctioned holiday. More than a dozen states, from California to Delaware, have followed suit.

Morning Sunday Hettleman launched Baltimore's first Juneteenth Commemoration in Harlem Park in 1989 and has celebrated the event in the city ever since. In the early 1990s, she started the National Juneteenth Museum, which she describes as "a museum without walls."

Though a uniquely American holiday, yesterday's celebration touched on international themes. Chyna Lawrence, 34, who won the Ms. Black International title in Canada earlier this year, spoke about Emancipation Day in her native Trinidad, where the British abolished slavery some 25 years before the U.S. Civil War.

Representing Nigeria was Lilycent Uche Ogbuagu, 37, a nurse and performance artist who came to the U.S. seven years ago and lives in Columbia.

Dressed in batik prints and bracelets made of polished wood and seashells, she portrayed a newly captured African slave, her hands and feet bound. She sang a haunting chant in her native Igbo language. "Please set me free!" Ogbuagu wailed. "Send me back to Africa, send me back to my family."

Various periods in American history were also recalled in period costume, including the Revolutionary War and its African-American regiments, and the War of 1812, in which William Williams, a 21-year-old runaway Maryland slave, died of wounds sustained in the defense of Fort McHenry from the British bombardment in 1814.

Fort McHenry's Chief Ranger Vincent Vaise, 35, dressed as a Union officer to read Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. The audience followed along with copies of the text.

The Juneteenth event doubled as a Father's Day celebration for the Boddie family - Wayne and Karen, and their sons, Brandon, 9, and Justin, 5, from Windsor Mill.

"It's a part of history, and we think it's something our children need to know about," said Karen Boddie, a nurse.

The day ended with audience members helping to unfurl a large American flag - similar to the one that flew over the fort during the bombardment and inspired Francis Scott Key's poem, "The Star-Spangled Banner."

They sang the final line of the national anthem - "O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave" - with particular resonance.

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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