Black history unfolds

Published 5:01 pm Tuesday, June 22, 2021

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MURFREESBORO – On a humid Saturday, attendants witnessed the town’s first Juneteenth celebration, or Freedom Day, here at Riverside Park near the Meherrin River bridge.

Speakers led the program on a stage decorated with memorial and Juneteenth wreaths created by Murfreesboro resident Sylvia Anderson, owner of Lamont’s.

Murfreesboro Town Councilwoman Berna Stephens served as Mistress of Ceremony and Murfreesboro Mayor Hal Thomas welcomed everyone.

Jackie Ruffin Pittman reads the history of Juneteenth on the main stage. Photo by Cheryl Deloatch

Jackie Ruffin Pittman read a short history of Juneteenth and led the Black National Anthem in “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” accompanied by trumpeter Henry Britt. Pittman also led a libation and wreath dedication ceremony honoring local members of the 36th Regiment, Infantry, United States Colored, who served during the Civil War.

Local historian Caroline Stephenson read a speech that Hertford County native Marvin Tupper Jones prepared in his absence.

“It is fitting that today’s event is observed on this river park, for so many enslaved people freed themselves on the Meherrin and Chowan rivers,” Jones wrote.

Jones, also a historian, shared relevant information. “…Juneteenth is more about African Americans freeing themselves rather than being freed,” he wrote. “The enslavers forced the United States fort’s commander to surrender. In 1862, United States forces recaptured the Outer Banks, Elizabeth City and Edenton.”

Jones detailed the skirmish leading to Winton’s burning on February 20, 1862.

“That day, February 20 1862, might have been the first day that our local African Americans freed themselves in large numbers and went away with the U.S. troops and the gunboat,” he wrote.

Jones explained starting in May 1863, African Americans living “along and near the Meherrin, Chowan and Roanoke Rivers began enlisting in the United States Army.”

Regiments had over 1,000 soldiers. Members of one regiment, the 36th Regiment, Infantry, United States Colored, had enlisted men from Hertford, Northampton, Bertie and Gates counties.

“You may be descended from the heroes of the 36th and other African American regiment,” Jones wrote. “I hope you will find that out.”

One area the regiments went to was Elizabeth City. “Ultimately, the 36th Infantry, United States Colored, and other regiments, besieged Richmond and Petersburg for eleven months until the rebels fled both cities,” Jones continued. “The 36th Infantry took the honor of being the first United States soldiers to enter the defeated rebel capital. The 36th Infantry, including Hertford County men … defeated slavery.”

“The regiment’s last act played a major role in Juneteenth,” Jones declared. “In June 1865, they were en route to the Mexican border in Texas during the time of Juneteenth to support patriotic Mexicans invaded by a European-backed force. The 36th Infantry and other African Americans returned to the east coast seven months later and were discharged from the U.S. Army. Enslavement was abolished….”

Jones’ research provided the names of the Hertford County Civil War heroes of the 36th Regiment USC. They are David Berry, Eli Britt, Allen Cooper, George Cooper, Corporal; Henderson Cooper, Sergeant; Littleton Cooper, First Sergeant; Romulus Cooper; Solon Cooper, Corporal; Benjamin Gatlin (sic), Jacob Gatlin, James H. Hunt, First Sergeant; Richard Jones, John Lang, Isaac Liverman, Moses Liverman, Corporal; Claiborne Miller, Charles Mullen, Corporal; William Newsom, Rochus Parker, Henry Purdy, Sergeant; Rueben Riddick, Corporal; Gilbert Skinner, Samuel Sutton, Thomas Vaughn, Frank Williams, and Joseph Wise.

Local historian Caroline Stephenson joins with Dr. Claudia Weaver Richardson at the event. Photo by Cheryl Deloatch

Next, Pittman led a libation and wreath dedication ceremony honoring these men by pouring water from a pitcher over a callalilly while Stephenson read the names of Hertford County’s 36th Regiment USC. Pittman led the group in singing “Funga Alafia,” meaning “welcome, blessings,” and “Ase (pronounced ashay),” meaning “Let it be so.”

After Britt played “Taps,” Lillie White recognized the Murfreesboro Police Department and Hertford County Sheriff’s Office for their presence. Sheriff Dexter Hayes, along with Hertford County Commissioners Andre Lassiter, LeRoy Douglas, and John Horton attended.

Vendors, many with Hertford County connections, were also thanked for their support. Among them were Roanoke-Chowan Community College, G Unique, and Shea Malai Soapery.

Cultivator Bookmobile and Murfreesboro High School (MHS) Class of 1979 co-sponsored Freedom Day. Corporate sponsors were Dominion Energy and Southern Star Inn in Murfreesboro.

Carlton Matthew Stephenson, Jr. was the spokesman for the MHS Class of 1979.

“God inspired us to be responsible for the refreshments for Juneteenth. ‘To whom much is given, much is required.’ My classmates and I wanted to party with a purpose — a chance to give back. My parents taught me to always be a blessing,” Stephenson said

“This event was scheduled before we knew Juneteenth would become a national holiday,” he continued. “We reached out to other classes. Once people heard about Juneteenth, they called to see how to become involved.”

A graduate of A&T State University, Stephenson has been married 35 years with three children and three grandchildren. He is a realtor with Long and Foster Real Estate. A member of New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore, Stephenson is a deacon, trustee and member of the Pastor’s Executive Committee.

“Caroline and I met on,” he said. “I hit a roadblock in my family history, and she helped me. When the sons of former slaves and the daughters of former slave owners come together, we put together Juneteenth. If we can come together for Juneteenth, Murfreesboro and the world can come together.”

Murfreesboro natives enjoyed the program. Mae Carter Godette said, “I’m elated to be here – super proud. Caroline’s speech was great.” The Chester, Virginia, resident, who holds degrees from Winston-Salem State University and A&T State University, said, “No matter where I go, there’s no place like home.”

“The program was nice – I liked all of it,” said Murfreesboro native Wanda Brimage Williams. “The history was good, and it was good to see everyone.”

Williams’ husband, Melvin Williams, commented, “It is interesting that it happened here and no one knew about it.”