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This festival celebrates freedom from slavery
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Dancers with Ignite perform during the 7th annual Juneteenth Day Festival at the Midtown Greenway on Saturday, June 15, 2019. - photo by Austin Steele

The Gainesville-Hall County Black History Society held its seventh-annual Juneteenth Festival on Saturday, June 15, at the Midtown Greenway Park, hosting a crowd of community members sharing their talents in the form of food, art and dance.

The festival has grown in Gainesville over the years and has quickly become a time to teach the community.

“The purpose of Juneteenth is to celebrate our freedom,” said Linda Hutchens, president of the Gainesville-Hall County Black History Society.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves during the Civil War, went into effect in 1863, not all slaves were truly freed. Many continued to be enslaved until 1865, which is when those who celebrate Juneteenth, consider true freedom for African Americans

Stephanie Watkins had never heard of Juneteenth until she joined the military and was stationed in Arizona in her early 20s. While there, she heard about the holiday and began celebrating it.

“I realized that we are not aware of our history as people because it wasn’t taught,” said Watkins, vice president of the Gainesville-Hall County Black History Society. “I think many African Americans are ashamed and embarrassed as well. At one time, I hated discussing (slavery) or even talking about it, but I realized we cannot heal that which we cannot speak.”

That’s why she said Juneteenth is such an important event and why she shows up and gets involved in every way she can.

“It is giving the community an opportunity to fellowship and celebrate something that may have been bad, but we’re celebrating the beauty and accomplishments,” Watkins said. “The mission is to make people aware of our history and hopefully take time to dive in and learn about it themselves.”

Rickey Young has taken that about as far as he can. After setting up a tent with tri-fold display boards illustrating his family’s legacy and pulling books and binders of information out of at least a dozen crates, he rolled out a roll of paper — more than 50 feet long —on the grass that showed his entire family tree.

“On my mom’s side there were 12 children, 47 grandchildren,” said Young, a member of the Gainesville-Hall County Black History Society. “I’m 31st out of 47. On my dad’s side of the family, there were 12 children that had 63 grandchildren. I’m 62nd out of 63.”

The retired Gainesville High School teacher said he’s a part of the event each year because he’s from Gainesville and is happy to share and celebrate his family’s history from the area.

“I majored in history because I have a history,” Young said. “I keep the story going and that’s the whole point of this event.”

And for John Harris, president of Fair Street-Butler High Schools Alumni Inc., sharing that story with young people is an important part of the event. That’s just one reason he’s involved.

“The only way that this can survive is if we spread it to the young group,” Harris said. “It gives us the opportunity to highlight history and a time to come together and just celebrate our culture.”

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