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Charleston massacre dampens Juneteenth celebration

Singing the Negro National Anthem ("Lift Every Voice and Sing), (l to r) Master Chief Jeffrey Owejan and his guest, Commissioner President Randy Guy, Commissioner Todd Morgan, Board of Education member Mary Washington, Del. Deb Rey and St. Mary's College President Tuajuanda Jordan.  

Lexington Park, MD -- “We are so divided in this country and my heart aches for this,” said Dr. Janice Walthour, retired St. Mary’s County educator. Walthour was one of the speakers at the June 20th opening ceremony of 12th Annual St. Mary’s County Juneteenth Celebration. Walthour, a member of the Juneteenth Committee, was referring to the massacre of nine people several days before at a church in Charleston, SC. That deed, which was called “cowardly” in a letter read at Juneteenth from the Maryland NAACP, created a pall that hung over what is normally a celebratory event. “You can’t have Juneteenth and feel freedom when nine people were massacred in South Carolina,” Walthour observed.

Opening ceremony keynote speaker, St. Mary’s College President Dr. Tuajuanda Jordan noted that Juneteenth is a remembrance of the people of Galveston, TX learning two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation that they were indeed free. And, of course, she noted, “Adoption and acceptance of the law took far longer.”

Jordan asked the question that may have been on the minds of other attendees: “Are we free?” She said, “My response is shrouded in emotion brought on by events of the last few years,” including not only what happened in Charleston but other high profile killings in Florida, Missouri and elsewhere.

Harkening back to the Civil Rights era of the mid-20th Century, Jordan said it was led by the eventual chorus, “Lord how long,” and to Dr. Martin Luther King, who “emerged to uplift the masses.” And then along came Barrack Obama as the first black president, she said, and some concluded we had entered a post-racial America.

“How quickly we forget,” Dr. Jordan said in debunking that argument. “History will repeat itself in a more covert, complex and devastating way,” she warned. She added the country is entering a new era and that she doesn’t know what it should be called. But she further warned, “We can’t sit by and let the system take away what he have achieved.”

Earlier in the opening ceremony, Juneteenth Chairman Mike Brown said he was speaking from a 26-year military career when saying, “It still takes black and white keys to play the Star Spangled Banner.”

During the ceremony a “Pioneer in History Award” was presented to former delegate John Bohanan, an aide to Rep. Steny Hoyer. Bohanan was instrumental in securing funding for the U.S. Colored Troops Memorial Monument and the nearby interpretative center.

Bohanan praised the forgiveness expressed by the families of the nine people slain in Charleston towards the accused shooter, Dylann Root. Of that forgiveness, Bohanan said, “It was a reflection of their pastor and the culture of their church.”

Before the award ceremony Dr. Walthour looked at the woman who defeated Del. Bohanan in November, and said. “It will take legislation, Delegate Rey,” and then looked at commissioners Guy, Morgan and Jarboe in the audience and said, “It will take people coming together.” 

Master Chief Jeffrey Owelan also spoke at the opening ceremony on behalf of Patuxent Naval Air Station Commanding Officer Capt. Heidi Fleming. He gave the history of Major General Gordon Granger, who read General Order Number 3 in Galveston, TX on June 19, 1865 that announced freedom for the slaves and was the original Juneteenth.

Guy and Rey presented proclamations to mark Juneteenth and a letter was read from U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski.

This year’s event was held for the first time at Lancaster Park in Lexington Park near the Civil War monument and interpretative center, after being held the first 11 years at Freedom Park. The new venue provided more space and more parking, although the June heat beat down on the treeless site driving people under the entertainment and eating tents to cool down.

A number of vendors were on hand to offer items for sale or dispense information. And a half dozen food vendors featured a variety of specialties.

Even with the pall hanging over the event, the music played on all day featuring Spring Ridge M.S. Rhythm Team, St. Peter Claver Dance Ministry, No Puff Daddy (Sterlen Barr), saxophonist James Brown, Soul in Motion, Super Magic Man Reggie Rice, Zumba Fitness, Contemporary Jazz Performance featuring Alan King, and Soulful Journey Band.

Juneteenth is put on every year by the Unified Committee for Afro-American Contributions (UCAC). The organization also was responsible for constructing the monument and running the interpretive center.

Major sponsors are the Commissioners of St. Mary’s County, St. Mary’s County Arts Council, MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital, SMECO, MHHD, LOTTS Enterprises of Maryland, Cherry Cove, Inc. and St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Photo Gallery by Dick Myers

Contact Dick Myers at dick.myers@thebaynet.com

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