Juneteenth Part 3: The History of Celebrating The Holiday

While there was an eagerness to celebrate the anniversary of Juneteenth, there was also fear about how those celebrations would be received, given the already existing backlash against emancipation and the fall of the Confederacy. In places like Richmond, VA, the fear was so great that the African American community made sure to advertise what they were, and were not, celebrating.

As a result, early celebrations were often held in churches and homes.

Thankfully, times have changed, and Juneteenth celebrations are flourishing across the country, including right here in Wilmington.

The Wilmington Juneteenth Committee, Inc has been organizing events recognizing the importance the Freedom Day since 1995, long before it was on the radar of most of Wilmington. The major theme of the first Wilmington Juneteenth Festival was “Family Reunion,” honoring the fact that when enslaved individuals were finally freed, one of the first things many people did was attempt to find and reunite with families. This tradition continues to resonate with Juneteenth celebrations around the country.

The first Juneteenth Festival in Wilmington involved a magnificent Juneteenth Festival Parade. The first Grand Marshal was esteemed Williston Graduate and Civil Rights hero Major General Joseph A. McNeil. McNeil, along with Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr. (later known as Jibreel Khazan), and David Richmond were first-year students at the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina (now North Carolina A&T State University) who decided to protest segregation, beginning with the lunch counter at a Woolworth’s Department store in Greensboro. 

Each passing year saw the festival expand to include activities such as the Juneteenth Gospel Festival, a Talent Show, Dance Contest, Sweetheart Ball, Quiz Bowl, Teach-In Series, Juneteenth Queen Contest, Double Dutch Jump Rope, Sorority Step Show, and Juneteenth Urban Hike and luncheon.

Unfortunately, as with most of the country, Covid brought a halt to public celebrations for three years. However, the Juneteenth Festival made a triumphant return in 2022, increasing events and sponsorship. As a result of their tireless efforts, the City of Wilmington’s Commission on African American History awarded the Juneteenth Committee with a Living Legends Award at its annual banquet.

This year’s Juneteenth celebration promises to be the biggest of all, and the committee is thrilled it will be able to be enjoyed by more members of the Wilmington community now that the City of Wilmington has recognized Juneteenth as an official holiday. This year’s events include a gospel festival, golf tournament, teach-in, the annual Juneteenth Festival, and for the first time, a Juneteenth Breakfast.The committee is excited for its 28th celebration of this monumentally important holiday and encourages everyone to attend as many of the events as they can.

Check out the full calendar of events and consider attending the first annual Juneteenth Breakfast.

Article by Amy Schlag, Equity and Inclusion Specialist at the City of Wilmington.  This is three of a three-part series.

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