“Black joy is resistance," Juneteenth organizer Claudia Alick announced from the Green Show stage in Ashland as the celebration of the end of slavery in Texas and across the country was marked Monday in Ashland.
The first Juneteenth was on this date in 1865, when Union soldiers entered Galveston, Texas, and shared the news that the Civil War had ended May 9 and slavery had ended more than two years earlier when President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect in January, 1863. Juneteenth is the oldest known commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.
Juneteenth has been celebrated at Oregon Shakespeare Festival since 1998 when actor Aldo Billingslea, originally from Texas, hosted a fundraising barbecue to help African American students attend the OSF Institute’s annual summer seminar for high school students.
They passed the basket at this year’s Juneteenth to continue fundraising for those scholarships.
The event drew out an audience that packed the lawn in front of the Green Show stage starting at noon on a sunny, hot Monday, with temps in the 90s. Performers sang songs and performed dances that had a decidedly celebratory tone. The opening song was “Don’t You Worry about a Thing” by Stevie Wonder, with the cast dancing to a Latin infused rhythm.
This year’s Juneteenth theme was “For Us, By Us.”
OSF released a statement about what that theme means: “Juneteenth commemorates African-American freedom and emphasizes education and achievement. In cities across the country, people of all races, nationalities and religions come together to acknowledge a period that shaped our history and continues to influence our society.”
“Given the fact we have crazy people running the country, we need to celebrate freedom,” said Ashland resident Ann Haynes as she stood in the shad under an awning, clapping and watching. “Everybody is here, it’s great to see people standing up proud of who they are with dignity.”
Alick shared the urgency for the celebration this year. “It is important, now more than ever, for our community to explicitly reaffirm our values in the public,” Alick said. “We are anti-racist and pro-black in Ashland, and we must state this loud, proud, and with joy.”
At one point in the show the audience was lead in a call and response to that theme, calling out “We are anti-racist and pro-black in Ashland.”
The show attracted what appeared to be several hundred people as artists read poetry, acknowledged musical roots and dances and the audience clapped along in celebration of the day 152 years ago when black slaves first heard of their freedom.
“I think it’s fabulous,” said Geoff Lowry, standing off to the side in his sunglasses taking in the show. “A city like Ashland putting on a celebration like this. It’s very inclusive and everyone is having a great time.”
Lowry referenced what the first Juneteenth must have felt like for those who discovered that, after centuries of slavery, they were free. “Given what it’s about, when those in Texas found out after so much unimaginable suffering they were free — it had to be complete joy.”
The 2017 celebration was created by members of the OSF company: Nemuna Ceesay, Roberta Inscho-Cox, JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell and Sam White.
“It’s been an incredible experience, collaborating with members of our OSF family in creating our Juneteenth event,” Ceesay said. “We couldn’t be more thrilled to share in such an important, yet relatively unknown, American holiday with our community, while raising funds to provide this once in a lifetime opportunity for students of color!"
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.