Juneteenth turns 150 as ‘Black Independence Day’

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.
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. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

The 150th anniversary of the Civil War passed with little fanfare in Charlotte, but one of the conflict’s lesser known moments is being commemorated this week in Charlotte with a four-day festival: The day the last slaves learned they had been freed.

That moment occurred on June 19, 1865 – two years after the Emancipation Proclamation – when Union troops arrived in in Galveston, Texas, and informed the state’s 250,000 enslaved people there that the war ended two months earlier.

Juneteenth, as it’s now known, has been gaining national momentum in recent decades since as an unofficial Black Independence Day. Celebrations of the day are held annually in hundreds of cities across the country, including more than a dozen events in North Carolina cities and towns.

Charlotte’s 18th annual festival is among the biggest and longest running in the state, with organizers expecting 20,000 people from Thursday to Sunday.

The nonprofit event will be held at Independence Park and will feature musicians and multicultural vendors from around the nation showcasing food, art, music and historical displays.

Businessman Pape Ndiaye, who established Charlotte’s Juneteenth celebration in 1997, says the event is not intended to dwell on the divisiveness of the Civil War. Instead, he sees it as a way to delve into the rich ancestry and culture of African Americans, who make up 35 percent of the city’s population.

That history, he believes, should inspire rather than divide.

“I believe the worst thing ever to happen to humanity was slavery...but this has nothing to do with guilt,” said Ndiaye, a native of Senegal who owns the House of Africa gallery in Plaza-Midwood. “It’s about American history. Africans have been in this country over 400 years and that makes them bona fide Americans, whether they like that idea or not. It’s true.”

There is little documentation about how slaves in the Charlotte area reacted to news of their freedom.

What few reports there are state that many former slaves just dropped their tools and walked away from their plantations, and headed for the nearest big city. Many quickly got married, which was a right denied to them as slaves.

Historians say Charlotte became a destination for many, who created largely African American neighborhoods surrounding uptown.

Sankofa Baba of Charlotte is an African-American history lecturer who helped create the local festival’s African History Tunnel, which recounts black history from the African continent to Juneteenth in Texas.

She believes the event comes at a critical time for the nation, when conflict has become common between young African Americans and law enforcement in cities like Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore.

“I am one of those people who wants an understanding of all cultures, so you’ll see me at community events for the Chinese, the Irish or Native Americans,” said Baba.

“The more we learn about each other’s cultures, the more it will help our country. Events like Juneteenth build bridges.”

A national Juneteenth commemoration is planned for June 27 in Galveston to mark the 150th anniversary. It is part of the ongoing effort to get legislation enacted to make Juneteenth a national day of observance. There’s even a movement to create a Juneteenth postage stamp.

Currently, 43 states, along with the District of Columbia, recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or day of observance. However, petitions urging President Obama to make the day a national holiday have so far failed, say backers of the idea.

Yvonne Waiters-Dixon, who is among the Charlotte festival organizers, says most towns in the Carolinas have some type of commemoration, though many are less formal than the one being held here.

The celebration has added meaning to her, because her lineage has been traced to Texas, suggesting her ancestors were among those last slaves to learn of their freedom. She says her ancestors include cowboy rodeo star Bill Pickett, a former slave turned Wild West show performer.

“Sometimes, I like to think of those people in Texas, when they got the news that slavery had ended. It must have been an overwhelming thing,” says Waiters-Dixon.

“There is much about the past that is distasteful, even horrific, and that causes some people to not want to know the truth. But we also need to be able to think of the progress made.”

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Juneteenth events

Charlotte’s Juneteenth begins with a Cultural Camp for youths age 3 and up, starts 9 a.m. Thursday and runs until 5 p.m. at Elizabeth Traditional Elementary School, 1601 Park Drive; Charlotte, NC 28204.

Festival events Friday, Saturday and Sunday will be held at Independence Park. Hours are 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Activities include live music and dance, a parade, international foods, a fashion show, historical drama and free healthcare screenings.

The festival is free and open to the public. Details: www.juneteenthofthecarolinas.com, or call the House of Africa at 704-376-6160.

Volunteers and vendors are still needed.