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Juneteenth celebration puts spotlight on new national holiday

It doesn’t have the familiarity of the Fourth of July, and it’s not nearly as widely celebrated or observed as holidays like Labor Day or Memorial Day. But for Roanoke’s Kelley Phillips, who oversees Bridging the Gap Community Services, Juneteenth is a holiday that deserves the attention of a larger audience.

To that end Phillips organized Roanoke’s third annual Juneteenth celebration, which took place Friday at the Main Street Theatre downtown. The event serves many purposes, one of which is to educate the community on the importance of the holiday and the role that Juneteenth plays in the country’s emergence from its era of slavery.

“We’re celebrating a part of our heritage that for a lot of us we’re still learning about,” Phillips said. “For a long time we all thought enslaved people were all freed at the same time, but they weren’t.”

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, while the Civil War continued to be fought.

That war came to an end officially on April 9, 1865, but it wasn’t until two months after the end of the war and two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation that slaves in Texas were finally freed.

According to an article from the Smithsonian Institute, “Freedom finally came on June 19, 1865, when some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. The army announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved black people in the state, were free by executive decree. This day came to be known as “Juneteenth,” by the newly freed people in Texas.”

The legacy of that day has been spurred by the 2021 decision to make Juneteenth a national holiday. One of the names that the holiday goes by is “Juneteenth Independence Day,” which underscores the message that Phillips reiterated.

“If we’re not all free, then none of us are free,” she said. “That’s what’s so important about this day. The last of the slaves were set free, which meant that was the first time that everyone was free in this country.”

The program in Roanoke is meant to be a celebration, and it was just that. The two-hour gathering drew over 150 people to watch performances from the Sahi On Ko Djony West African drummers and dancers. They were also treated to a fashion show entitled Be the Brand, which featured work from four local fashion designers. Attendees heard a performance from the Vision Community Choir, listened to poetry and heard from keynote speaker April Ross, who started BeeTV, a local television station based in LaGrange.

Phillips said the crowd was diverse, with Black, Hispanic and white people all in attendance.

“It was all people,” Phillips said. “The unity that was in the building made everybody feel good.”

Phillips said she will continue to organize the event around the annual holiday and will push to make it “new, exciting, educational, entertaining and inspiring” each year.

And one of the reasons she intends to do so is to make sure the message of Juneteenth in never lost.

“A lot of people knew about this day and what it means, and a lot of people still don’t,” Phillips said. “We’ve got to get the message out and keep telling the story, so it doesn’t get lost.”

Fashion designer and Handley graduate Ian Mosley (second from left) takes a photo with models, from left, Osiris Riveras, Indya Whitaker and Cyrah Powell as the Vision Community Choir performs on stage at Friday’s Juneteenth celebration in Roanoke.

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