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What is Rock Hill’s Juneteenth celebration all about?

One of the first things I was told when I moved to the Carolinas just over a year ago was, “Don’t feel out of place. Nobody here is actually from the area.”

That’s an exaggeration, of course, but it seems increasingly true as I run into more and more fellow transplants. So when I sought to find out more about the Juneteenth Rock Hill celebration, which takes place June 17-18 (see event schedule here), imagine my surprise when it led me to a genuine Rock Hill native, Dr. Love Mills-Byrd.

Juneteenth Rock Hill image

Although she’s an area native with deep ties to Rock Hill (her father ran a business on Black Street before the area was demolished during the 1970s), it was during her 25 years in Cincinnati that Dr. Mills-Byrd gained an appreciation of Juneteenth festivals.

“In Cincy it was very important,” she said of the other Queen City’s Juneteenth tradition, which harkens back to 1988. “The festival was a diverse, city-wide celebration, not geared solely to the African-American community, and I was determined to see that happen and develop in Rock Hill.”

I had a few questions.

For those who don’t know, how would you describe Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. Most are familiar with President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued in January of 1863.  But Texas was a little slow and it wasn’t until June 19, 1865, over two years later, that Gen. Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas and read the Proclamation of Freedom to the enslaved people of the state. Now, it was a bit of a dubious freedom as many of those formerly enslaved people couldn’t leave and there were no jobs anywhere…but those slaves started the celebration that is continued to this day.”

What are the goals of Juneteenth Rock Hill and what are some of the things visitors can expect?

“Our main goals are education and celebration. Our Friday event, which will be held in conjunction with Rock Hill’s Food Truck Friday, will feature a Freedomfest concert hosted by author Kimberly P. Johnson. On Saturday, we will have a Freedomfest cookout, located on the grounds of the Friendship Jr. College/Mt. Prospect Baptist Church, featuring autograph signings by NFL stars, free food, vendors and local entertainment. We’ll also have the Ann Cain Scholarship Award presentation, which will be given to a local high schooler who has chosen to major in education.”

I couldn’t help but end my interview with a question about what it’s like to prepare this event during a time marked by deep division in our country. She responded that in the face of a growing divide they are seeking to be more inclusive.

“Last year we expanded to a city-wide celebration involving many different community leaders,” she said, “and we are excited about continuing that this year and sharing our legacy and heritage to more and more people.”

So, make sure to stop by Old Town Rock Hill on June 17 and the Friendship Jr. College grounds on 339 W. Black St/445 Allen St. on June 18 to take part in this growing, inclusive and community-wide celebration.

Photos: Sonja Burris