Elegba Folklore Society leaders conducting a libation ceremony in recent years, an African ceremony designed to honor deceased slaves. (Photo courtesy Elegba Folklore Society)
Just over 150 years ago on June 19, as thousands of slaves toiled in the cotton fields of Texas, a life changing announcement carried by Union soldiers interrupted their labor: From that day forward, they were free.
Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, in the bloody midst of the Civil War. It granted freedom to African-American slaves, most of whom had lived in bondage since their arrival in America in the 1600s. However, Union troops didn't arrive to enforce the decree in the South until two years after its signing, and blacks in Texas remained enslaved until mid-June 1865. Since then, June 19 has been dubbed Juneteenth and celebrated in African-American communities nationwide.
Elegba Folklore Society’s “Juneteenth 2016, A Freedom Celebration” packs all of the meaning and joy of that day into a two-day event, kicking off on June 17 with The Symposium, led by 84-year-old comedian, civil rights activist and outspoken cultural critic Dick Gregory.
“Richmond plays into the story line because in April 1865, when Union forces, including the United States Colored Troops, came into Richmond, they opened up the jails that housed [blacks] still waiting for sale,” explains Janine Bell, president and artistic director of the Elegba Folklore Society. “They encamped on the capitol grounds and effectively helped end the Civil War by capturing Richmond.” Later in 1865, the 13th amendment was signed, abolishing slavery forever in the United States.
Bell notes that Elegba’s Juneteenth celebration, while joyous, also serves as a somber reminder of Richmond’s dark history as a major port of the nation’s slave trade.
“In some places, Juneteenth is a very party-like atmosphere, and that’s a good thing, because it’s a celebration,” she says. “But here, because Richmond was the upper-South’s major [slave] market ... we want to take this time to say thank you to those upon whose broad shoulders we stand, to shine a bright light on the history that has effected us all ... and to make it clear that as this present moment opens the door to the future, we can make change by our choices.”
Bell says Elegba Folklore Society has been hosting Juneteenth celebrations in Richmond since the mid-1990s. The initial event was co-sponsored by the Virginia Historical Society.
"Juneteenth 2016, A Freedom Celebration" begins with a symposium Friday, June 19 at 6:30 at Rhythm Hall in Dominion Arts Center. Dick Gregory, known for razor-sharp jokes that provoke thought and sometimes criticism, was selected to lead the symposium because he always “speaks truth to power,” says Bell.
“He has insight and perspective that is valuable, so that people can make informed choices about how [they] want to live their lives.”
Elegba brings Gregory to Richmond as his name lights up Big Apple billboards. “Scandal” actor Joe Morton portrays Gregory in the off-Broadway show, “Turn Me Loose,” which is based on his life. The production opened May 19, and was produced by Grammy-winning R&B singer John Legend.
Attendees of Friday evening's Symposium will have the chance to browse the Freedom Market, where “cultural items, books, clothing, jewelry, art and more” will be on sale by local vendors, says Bell. There will also be children's activities.
Attendees of last year's Juneteenth celebration browse Elegba's Freedom Market, offering art, jewelry and other goods by local artisans. (Photo courtesy Ava Reaves/Elegba Folklore Society)
On Saturday, the event continues with “In Reflection” at 5 p.m. at the Manchester Dock, where from 1830 to 1860, it served as a major port of the Slave Trade, making Richmond the largest source of African slaves on the East Coast. “In Reflection” will honor the memories of the enslaved people whose names will never be known, feature a youth summit on cultural identity and higher education and performances by Elegba's African dancers. The evening will culminate with Elegba’s Annual Torch Lit Night Walk on the Trail of Enslaved Africans. During the walk, participants may create and carry Ola Ninu Oku figurines, which means “Honor the dead” in Yoruba.
Elegba Folklore Society's African dancers perform at a Juneteenth celebration in recent years. (Photo courtesy Elegba Folklore Society)
The Elegba Folklore Society’s “Juneteenth 2016, A Freedom Celebration” will be held Friday, June 17 – Saturday, June 18. Tickets to Friday’s Symposium are $15 each, $25 for two. Saturday's events are free. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Elegba Folklore Society's website.