Celebration of freedom

Published 4:30 pm Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

AHOSKIE – While the roots of Juneteenth are found in Texas, this federal holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States also has a Roanoke-Chowan area connection.

Saturday’s “Freedom Revisited” celebration held at the R.L. Vann Community Resource Center in Ahoskie addressed that connection.

Deacon Charlie P. Morris of New Ahoskie Missionary Baptist Church provided the local angle of Juneteenth. He quoted the vast research of Marvin Tupper Jones, a Hertford County native now living in Washington, DC. Jones founded the Chowan Discovery Group whose mission is to research, document, preserve and present the 400+ year-old history of the land owning tri-racial people of color of the Winton Triangle.

“Juneteenth in our area is really something special,” Morris observed. “Marvin has done so much research on our area and I want to share some of his great work.”

Morris shared there was a great number of enslaved people at one time in the Roanoke-Chowan area.

“Juneteenth was more about African Americans freeing themselves rather than being freed by someone else,” Morris said. “The Civil War was about slavery. By 1862, United States forces took back the Outer Banks, Elizabeth City and Edenton. The Union Navy sailed up to Winton where they were fired upon. The next day, Union troops landed in Winton and burned the town. That day, Feb. 20, 1862, might have been the first day that our African American ancestors freed themselves in large numbers and joined the Union forces. That was our Juneteenth.”

Morris added that the research conducted by Jones showed those local men were part of 200,000 former slaves who served the Union.

“Beginning in May of the following year, African Americans living along or near the Meherrin, Chowan, and Roanoke rivers began enlisting in the United States Army,” Morris said. “Regiments made up of 1,000 men each were formed, to include soldiers from Hertford, Bertie, Northampton, and Gates, many of which joined the 36th Infantry. They raided Rebel camps in the Elizabeth City area and rescued 2,500 African Americans.”

Jones’ research showed that the 36th Infantry was assigned to stand guard over Confederate prisoners held in Maryland. They also helped to occupy Petersburg, VA and the Rebel capital of Richmond, VA later in the war. They were among the Union troops that helped to spread the word of the Emancipation Proclamation and to suppress any additional enslaving activities.

Morris called out the surnames of local men that joined Union forces, assuring that many perhaps have ancestors attending Saturday’s event. Those family names were: Archer, Artis, Askew, Bazemore, Baker, Beasley, Bond, Boone, Brown, Bunch, Capehart, Chavis, Cherry, Cooper, Flood, Hall, Harrell, Hoggard, Horton, Jernigan, Jones, Jordan, King, Lane, Lewis, Manley, Melton, Mitchell, Mizelle, Pugh, Ransome, Rascoe, Reid, Reynolds, Rallings, Rolach, Ruffin, Scott, Sears, Sessoms, Sharpe, Simmons, Smallwood, Smith, Taylor, Turner, Ward, Weaver, White, Wiggins, and Wynn.

“From them arose our churches, our schools, jobs, businesses and social organizations,” Morris said. “The opportunities of these heroes remain steadfast within us today.”

Rev. Dr. Jeffery Wilson of Calvary Missionary Baptist Church also added a bit of history. He talked about the the eve of Jan. 1, 1863 at which time the first Watch Night services were held.

A parade along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive preceded Juneteenth’s festivities at R.L. Vann. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

He said on that night, enslaved and free African Americans gathered at churches and private homes all across the nation awaiting the news that the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effort.

“At the stroke of midnight, prayers were answered as all enslaved people in the Confederate states were declared legally free,” Rev. Dr. Wilson said. “Union soldiers, most of them Black, marched onto plantations and across cities in the south reading copies of the Emancipation Proclamation and spreading the news of freedom.”

However, not every slave in the southern states was immediately set free as the Emancipation Proclamation could not be implemented in places still under Confederate control. It took until June 19, 1865 for freedom to finally reach those enslaved in Galveston, Texas. There, 2,000 Union troops arrived to officially set free more than 250,000 slaves.

“This is what has become known as Juneteenth and it’s celebrated all across our country,” Rev. Dr. Wilson explained.

Formal greetings at Saturday’s event were brought by Mary Brown-Joyner of Menola Missionary Baptist Church, Ahoskie Police Chief Michele Garrett, Hertford County Sheriff Dexter Hayes, Dr. Viola Vaughan-Holland, President of the Hertford County NAACP, RCCC President Dr. Murray Williams, Andre Lassiter, Chairman of the Hertford County Board of Commissioners, and Natasha Norman, representing Hertford County Public Schools.

Hayes noted that even today, more than 160 years since the end of slavery and 60 years since the passing of the Civil Rights Act, obstacles still remain for Blacks.

“There are instances where Blacks are being mistreated and still not getting the same opportunities for jobs,” Hayes stated. “But without those who came before us, I wouldn’t be in the position I am today. I’m proud to be a Black man and proud to be the Sheriff of Hertford County.”

“This is a day to honor the resilience and strength of African Americans throughout our history,” stressed Dr. Williams. “As we celebrate this special day, let us remember the ongoing fight for justice, equality, and freedom.”

Lassiter noted the significance of Juneteenth is highlighted by triumph of liberty over oppression, the strength found in unity, and the ongoing pursuit of equality and justice for all.

“This is an opportunity for us to engage and inspire each other,” Lassiter said. “This celebration is not just for us to look back at our history, but a call to action for our present and our future. We need to inspire our young people to dream bigger, reach higher and achieve more.”

Rev. Dorian Daniels Sr. of New Ahoskie Missionary Baptist Church closed out the program by addressing Juneteenth in modern terms. He noted that “while we have freedom, we are still in search of freedom.”

Rev. Daniels referenced state legislators, through political redistricting, are ensuring that not all voices are heard. He noted the recent decision by the UNC Board of Governors that repealed DEI (Diversity Equality Inclusion) mandates. He noted that teacher pay in North Carolina is among the lowest in the nation. He spoke of women’s reproductive rights.

“But remember that the Lord has set you free to go speak freedom to other people,” Rev. Daniels said. “There’s a bright side somewhere. If we work together, if we stand together, if we love one another, if we organize, we can look to God to know there’s a bright side somewhere.”

Louise Barnes, Chair of the Juneteenth program, closed by thanking all who helped organize the event.

“We’ve had a very educational day. Things have been brought back to our mind. We’re so glad that each and every one of you came,” Barnes said.

Also taking part in the program was Jackie White Porter of Calvary Missionary Baptist Church who recited powerful words of a poem.

Spiritual music was performed by local ministers.

Saturday’s event was the work of the Concerned Citizens of Hertford/Bertie Counties

Vendors (food/arts & crafts/resource information) were set up on the grounds.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

email author More by Cal