‘Spirit of freedom’: Juneteenth festival honors slave independence, African heritage

Why Juneteenth is one of the most important historical occasions

The annual celebration of Juneteenth on or around June 19th is one of the most important historical occasions in the African American community. Juneteenth marks the moment enslaved people learned of the abolishment of slavery.
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The annual celebration of Juneteenth on or around June 19th is one of the most important historical occasions in the African American community. Juneteenth marks the moment enslaved people learned of the abolishment of slavery.

When Pape Ndiaye moved to Charlotte over 20 years ago, one thing stood out to him — no one celebrated Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the emancipation of the last slaves in America. He decided to change that.

Ndiaye, a native of Senegal who owns the House of Africa gallery in Plaza Midwood, started Charlotte’s first Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas in 1997. The 22nd annual celebration will kick off with a children’s cultural camp 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday at the Elizabeth Traditional Elementary School. The other events from Friday to Sunday will take place on Thomas Avenue and Commonwealth Avenue.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce that the Civil War had ended two months earlier. The enslaved people of Texas learned they were free that day, more than two years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Ndiaye said the Juneteenth festival does not intend to dwell on the pain of the Civil War but to embrace moving forward.

“Our aim is not trying to recreate the past but to share in the spirit of freedom and togetherness and unity,” Ndiaye said.

Festival goers will have opportunities to learn about both the 400 years of African American history in the United States and African cultural heritage. Friday, Saturday and Sunday will include street celebrations featuring African music, drumming, dance, fashion and cultural education, as well as vendors selling African products and food. African American historical lectures and resources, a gospel fest, R&B and jazz performances, and free DNA testing can be found at the festival.

Elisha Minter, the director of the children’s camp and one of the festival performers, said the festival allows African Americans to tell their own stories and keep their history in tact.

“It’s a celebration of culture, a celebration of what it means to have lived in America as an African American, as a black person,” Minter said.

Pape Ndiaye, owner of the House of Africa gallery, established Charlotte’s Juneteenth celebration in 1997. He was inspired to begin the festival when he realized there was no major celebration in Charlotte to honor the holiday. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Forty-five states have designated Juneteenth as a holiday, but the day has yet to receive national recognition. Towns all over North Carolina will celebrate Juneteenth in the upcoming week, but Ndiaye said the Charlotte festival is among the largest in the state.

Ndiaye said he expects about 5,000 people to attend the four-day festival. He said about 1,000 people came to the first Juneteenth in Charlotte over 20 years ago, and he has watched it grow ever since with performers and participants attending from all over the country and the world.

Charlotte resident Gary Mumford started attending the Juneteenth festival when it began 22 years ago. He said he was inspired by the celebration and now goes to schools to teach kids about African culture.

Now one of the festival’s drum performers, Mumford said he thinks cultural celebrations like Juneteenth could be solutions to some of Charlotte’s problems.

“I think if we would probably focus more on our culture, it would help quell down some of this violence that’s been going on,” he said. “That’s the thing about Juneteenth — it puts a spiritual energy in the air.”

Ndiaye said anyone is welcome to the festival, not just people of color.

“Juneteenth is part of American history,” he said. “It’s not just an African American holiday.”

Juneteenth schedule

The festival is free and open to the public. For more information, visit www.juneteenthofthecarolinas.com or call House of Africa at 704-376-6160. Parking is limited. Businesses in Plaza Midwood will remain open. For questions related to the Plaza Midwood Merchants Association, visit www.plazamidwood.com.

Thursday, June 13: The children’s camp will be held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Elizabeth Traditional Elementary School, 1601 Park Drive, Charlotte, NC 28204. Activities will include crafts, AfricanAmerican history lessons, acting, and African and liturgical dancing. Musicians and drummers will perform for the kids. Pizza Peel on Central Avenue is donating food. Children can register at www.juneteenthofthecarolinas.com.

Friday, June 14: A drum circle will be held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thomas Avenue and Commonwealth Avenue. Anyone is welcome to join the circle.

Saturday, June 15: A parade begins at 11 a.m., and the street festival will continue until 10 p.m. Festival includes musical and dance performances, fashion show, historical lectures, children’s village, and free healthcare screenings and DNA testing. The Soweto Street Beat dance and drum company of South Africa will be featured. A luncheon at 1 p.m. will honor elected officials, with U.S. Rep. Alma Adams and former Charlotte mayor Jennifer Roberts in attendance.

Sunday, June 16: The festival activities and performances will continue from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and will also include a gospel fest, Sunday service, tribute to fathers and presentation of the Marilyn Griffith Turner Scholarship.

Wednesday, June 19: The Levine Museum of the New South, in collaboration with the Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas, will honor Juneteenth at 200 E Seventh St., Charlotte, NC 28202.

The Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas in Plaza Midwood honors African heritage and the moment that the last enslaved people in America learned of their freedom in 1865. The festival starts with a children’s camp at Elizabeth Traditional Elementary School on Thursday, June 13 and will continue with parades, music, dance and more from Friday, June 14 to Sunday, June 16 on Thomas Avenue and Commonwealth Avenue. DIEDRA LAIRD-dlaird@charlotteobserver.com Staff Photographer