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Celebrating Emancipation

Juneteenth festival prompts entertainment and remembrance.

Alexandria's Juneteenth celebration brought together speakers, performers and vendors to celebrate the end of slavery after the Civil War. The event, held at the Charles Houston Recreation Center, brought about 1,000 people out on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

"We always try to get a variety of acts — a little something for everybody," said Louis Hicks, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum. "It's important to recognize that people of African descent were owned and held in bondage against their will. We want to make sure that folks remember so that we don't make these kinds of mistakes again."

The word "Juneteenth" combines June and 19, marking the day in 1865 when word reached Galveston, Texas that slavery in the United States had been abolished. President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation more than two years earlier — on New Year's Day 1863 —ordering the freeing of all slaves in states that were rebelling against Union forces. For more than a century, Juneteenth was observed mainly in Texas and parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. In recent decades, though, communities across the nation have adopted the holiday.

THIS YEAR'S CELEBRATION in Alexandria began with a ceremonial libation conducted by local publisher, healer and writer Orisade Imani Awodola. The ceremony included water from the James River, tobacco and cotton.

"The James River is where the plan was hatched," she said, noting the predominance of the James River in the Atlantic slave trade. Awodola said that remembering the pain of slavery is an important way to honor predecessors who suffered. "Why do we keep bringing slavery up? Because the ancestors keep coming back, and their souls are not at peace."

The program offered an array of entertainment: a Caribbean band, a blues band, several gospel singers, poetry readings, storytelling, dancers and a comedian.

"This is one of the few celebrations of emancipation," said Hicks. "We played an important role in building this country with our blood, sweat and torture. That should be recognized, and that's why we have Juneteenth."

People ate lunch and congregated under the warm afternoon sunshine. The crowd erupted into applause after the Pentecostal Praise Dancers finished their interpretive dance of redemption.

"I came to see what was going on," said Alexandria resident Maeola Phifer, who said she heard about the event through her church. "I loved watching the praise dancers. I though they were beautiful. Overall, I'd say this has been a great event."