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Juneteenth highlights health, history

The 10th Annual St. Mary’s County Juneteenth Celebration had health as its central focus this year. Signs were everywhere at Freedom Park in Lexington Park noting it was a “no smoking zone” and urging smokers to quit. And health screenings were available for the attendees.

During the opening ceremony St. Mary’s County Health Officer Dr. Meenakshi Brewster emphasized the need for the community to take action to solve health issues not unlike what was done during the Civil Rights era. “When we look to the past we see inspiration in action,” she said.

Dr. Brewster said health issues not only affect individuals, it also affects their families and small businesses struggling with health insurance costs. “That’s why health is a community issue,” she concluded.

She said two-thirds of St. Mary’s County residents are overweight or obese and 20 percent smoke, which are the two major health risk factors. Solutions involve removing barriers to health care. “Certain populations carry the burden of these diseases more than others,” she observed.

Dr. Brewster praised MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital, and its chief executive Christine Wray who was in attendance, for taking the leadership in creating the Health Enterprise Zone in Lexington Park which is leading to the building of a medical office on Great Mills Road. She said the community partners involved in the project would be the key to its success. Healthy St. Mary’s is having its next meeting on June 286 and the community is invited to participate.

In addition to health, the history of Juneteenth and the civil rights struggles that ensued were on the minds of several speakers. Patuxent Naval Air Station Commanding Officer Capt. Ben Shevchuk read from Army General Order Number 3, which parroted the Emancipation Proclamation. That order was read to the slaves of Galveston, Texas in 1865 who had not gotten word of the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier. Capt. Shevchuk noted that the then nine-year-old Booker T. Washington was there when the order was read. His mother, with tears of joy running down her cheeks, reached down, patted him on the head and told him he was now free.

“Let’s act on the freedom and help each other in all that we must do,” the commanding officer said.

The opening ceremony of the day-long event featured the presentation of a posthumous “Pioneer of the Past” Award to the family of Theodore Newkirk, who passed away on April 21 of this year. Newkirk was president of the St. Mary’s County Chapter of the NAACP for ten years during the height of the civil rights struggle. He led the community through intergration and, by filing suit, fought for equal pay on base.

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