Juneteenth celebration resonates in wake of Charleston, S.C., tragedy

Two days after Dylann Roof allegedly opened fire inside an historic black church in a city with deep black historical roots, the country is poised Friday to celebrate black empowerment and freedom from slavery.

Based on comments floating through social media and on editorials from news organizations, Juneteenth will have particular significance in Charleston, S.C., the community where nine people died after being shot during a prayer meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a house of worship founded by slave revolt organizer Denmark Vesey and others.

Juneteenth — a contraction of “June” and “nineteenth” — is a holiday set up to commemorate the day in 1865 when Major Gen. Gordon Granger came to Galveston, Texas, to inform a reluctant community that slaves had been freed by President Lincoln more than two years before and to press locals to comply.

Over time, the observance marked by dancing and music has come to celebrate freedom and black achievement nationally. Those concepts go hand-in-hand with with the theme of Charleston, a city steeped in black history and defiance.

Americans in the last 24 hours seem to have embraced the Juneteenth concept and rewrapped it as a way to honor the Charleston victims. Various organizations and people were sending out word that the victims would be remembered during already planned Juneteenth observances.

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The National Black United Front was organizing a Juneteenth Inter-Faith Prayer Vigil for Emanuel AME Church, slated for 7 p.m. EDT at the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington.

“There is a long history of bombings, burnings, shootings and other acts of terrorism committed against the black church and we would like to bring more light to this,” said Salim Adofo, national vice chairperson of the organization.

“The members of NBUF are asking members of all faiths in the community to join them as they will offer prayers and condolences to the victims of the shooting, their family, their friends and the members of Emanuel AME church,” the invitation read.

Editorials detailed the connection between Juneteenth and what took place at Emanuel, the oldest black church in the South and host site for the late Martin Luther King Jr. and other major figures over time.

“Friday’s celebration takes on new urgency,” read an editorial on the NewsOne website. “Surely, it was no mistake that the gunman picked Emanuel, which has played a pivotal role in black history.”

Social media was sprinkled with posts urging people to use Juneteenth to remember the victims.

“We commemorate those who were born or sold into slavery, and those who died in the process of bringing about its end,” read one Facebook post superimposed over a poster that reads “Juneteenth.”

On Twitter, author Eric Liu tweeted, “Black people being slain in southern churches like it’s (18 or 19) ’63. Tomorrow’s Juneteenth.”

Charleston is a place that reeks of black empowerment.

It is home to the Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture. About half of all black Americans in the U.S. can trace their arrival to the country from the Charleston region, according to the Avery center site. In history, the city hosted a sizable free black population.

“Charleston looks the way it does because of African-American hands,” Deborah Mack, associate director for community and constituent services for the future National Museum of African American History and Culture, told CNN. The facility will open next year in Washington.

Charleston and South Carolina’s Low Country are one of the few places in the U.S. today where basket weaving, language and other indigenous African practices are still evident. In 1822, authorities discovered plans for a major slave revolt being organized by Denmark Vesey, one of the founders of Emanuel. Authorities fortified the northern boundary of the city to prevent future rebellions and ultimately built the Citadel, which today is a commercial hotel.

One neighborhood, Harleston Village, features 1820s homes that were owned by free black men, including carpenter Richard Holloway and religious leader and shoemaker Morris Brown.

Holloway owned 20 homes by the time he died, according to an essay by Bernard Powers, chair of the history department at the College of Charleston. Emanuel and other churches that emerged after the civil war allowed black congregations to worship how they preferred, and according to their own customs, Powers wrote.

Read an editorial Thursday on the Al.com website, “Mourn today for a congregation that has lost so much … But tomorrow, in the spirit of Juneteenth, we work toward a yet another victory over blind, evil hatred.”


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