The Community Remembrance Project of Forsyth County held its second annual Unconventional Juneteenth Celebration on Saturday, June 19, at Sharon Springs Park, bringing together Black community members to share stories and experiences in Forsyth County and beyond.
The event offered the chance for community members from across the county to celebrate Juneteenth, which officially became a federal holiday when President Joe Biden signed it into law Thursday, June 17.
A crowd of about 100 guests gathered for the indoor event, enjoying dinner and dessert from sponsors BBQ Haven and Popbar Alpharetta, both local Black-owned businesses. CRPFC organizers asked audience members to continue to support them in the community even after the event.
Aside from dinner, the group brought in six Black residents, all from Forsyth County, to speak on a panel, answering audience questions and sharing their experience with inequities they still face both in Forsyth and in other parts of the nation.
Before the start of the panel, Dion Evans, a pastor with Imago Dei Church, began the conversation by explaining Juneteenth’s significance in American history.
The history behind the holiday
Juneteenth originated in Galveston, Texas in 1866, and it celebrates the emancipation of enslaved people in the U.S. The freed people of Galveston held parades, dancing through the streets and celebrating their freedom for the first time.
“But what happened is we have Juneteenth with some fine print …. The fine print is that caveat that really messes up the bold print,” Evans said. “We have Juneteenth happening on the heels of the emancipation proclamation that Abe Lincoln gave, but did you know that the emancipation proclamation didn’t really free slaves?”
Abraham Lincoln first issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, during the Civil War, and according to the U.S. National Archives, the mandate was “very limited” in that it only applied to states that had seceded from the U.S. It also exempted parts of the confederacy that had already been taken under control by the north.
Even in confederate states such as Texas, it took U.S. soldiers many years to enforce the proclamation, which is why those in Galveston were not freed until 1866 years after it was issued into law.
“We all have a responsibility now to learn more about what this is, learn more about the things that followed after Juneteenth,” Evans said.
Teaching kids about race
On top of learning more about Juneteenth and America’s history, speakers emphasized the need for community members to teach their children about race and involve them in more diverse groups and communities.
Keisha Carter-Brown, a licensed social worker and counselor who works with kids, teens and young adults, gave advice to audience members before the panel on how they can begin these conversations with kids while sharing her own experience as a mother.
She gave nine tips to the audience, the first in which she asked parents in the community to teach their younger kids to recognize and understand differences in the people around them, noting that kids begin to comprehend differences in skin tone and complexion at as early as 6 months old.
When children are older, Brown said it’s important to teach them more about racism, both in the nation’s past and current injustices Black Americans still face today.
Brown said the nation’s history is important to know, and it can help others to further understand racism today. She later referred to microaggressions, stereotypes, inappropriate jokes and racial slurs as racist interactions that go on throughout America and other countries now.
After teaching about what these offensive interactions look like, she asked that parents also teach kids to say something when they see it happening among peers and tell a teacher or other adult.
“Change happens with our children,” Brown said. “Change happens within your home. Do the work. Because Black parents don’t have a choice.”
Continuing with the night, Daniel Blackman, a parent and politician in Forsyth County, moderated the panel of Black residents, asking each of them questions submitted by members of the audience.
The panelists all spoke for the rest of the event about experiences with invisibility felt through subtle racism, the importance of teaching kids even outside of school, racism through social media outlets and what it is like to live as a Black resident in Forsyth County.
Later on in the panel, Blackman asked each of them to give an example of a microaggression directed at them or a time when they experienced subtle racism impacted them and their families.
Blackman explained he had to speak at a graduation recently in north Georgia, and he came well-dressed along with a group of others. One woman at the back of the stage saw him and asked if he was the entertainment.
“That’s not the first, second or third time that’s happened, and too often when, I know at least from my experience when you’re dressed up, it’s [assumed] we’re the help,” Blackman said. “Or we’re there for something else …. We can’t allow when people do those things. And that’s not for us to jump in their face and get an attitude, but I’m not passive about that. I worked very hard to get to where I am.”
Fellow panelist Valda Evans, a parent in the county, said she has faced similar experiences working for a corporation where she is often the only Black woman in the room, and there are times when she said it makes her question herself.
“It will make you crazy sometimes because you wonder, ‘Am I reading more into this than it is? Is it me?’ But you start to realize, it’s not me. Because if it’s coming so many different times, you recognize.”
Dion Evans, who also spoke as a panelist, said subtle racism can sneak up on people, and it can have just as harsh of an impact as other types of racism. In this way, he said those who have not experienced it can misunderstand its effect.
“I think subtle racism is a lot more harmful than racism because when we look at how racism is going now, a lot of people would say that racism does not exist because there are no crosses burning,” Dion said.
Blackman asked members of the audience during the panel to raise their hands if they believed racism still exists in Forsyth County, and a wave of hands flew into the air.
‘So much potential’
While each panelist said they still see and experience instances of racism in Forsyth County, they have hope for the future.
“I see Forsyth County as wide open, just so much potential,” Valda said. “Because I know all of the stuff that has happened. I know what is happening here …. It is still here, but sometimes you don’t know where the voices are coming from …. Energy attracts energy, so I try to be a positive energy in [my everyday life].”
Blackman said he is also optimistic for Forsyth’s future, but he also understands that there is still plenty of work to do in addressing racism. He referred back to the current conversation surrounding the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan in Forsyth County Schools and similar programs throughout the nation.
On the other hand, he said seeing a group in Forsyth County get together to listen to a group of panelists and celebrate Juneteenth for the second year gives him hope that more people are taking an interest.
At the end of the panel, Blackman shared that, on two occasions, while he was travelling through Europe, people asked him where he was from. Instead of answering with Georgia or the U.S., he said he was from Forsyth County.
“On both occasions, they knew where it was because of Oprah [Winfrey’s] show …. What it showed is you can say Atlanta, you can say Savannah, you can say a lot of places in the south. People know Forsyth County,” Blackman said.
Before ending the night, Blackman challenged each of the audience members to become ambassadors for Forsyth County -- to show others all over the world how Forsyth County has changed.
“When you leave here, do something great. So when you leave here and people ask you where you’re from and you say Forsyth County, they begin to think of us differently,” Blackman said.
CRPFC organizers also encouraged everyone to continue to celebrate Juneteenth and learn more about the history behind it along with a more in-depth history of the nation.
The CRPFC was originally founded in 2017 as a member of an Equal Justice Initiative coalition, which works to document and acknowledge incidents of racial injustice in communities throughout the U.S.
As part of the coalition, the group collected soil last year at the spot near the Forsyth County Administration building where a mob hung the body of Rob Edwards, a black man who had been arrested for the alleged rape and murder of a white woman in the county. They collected the soil and put them in two jars as part of an Equal Justice Initiative project to remember those who lost their lives by hanging throughout the country.
They then put a marker in the same location to serve as a reminder of what happened, and the group plans to have a special dedication at the marker on the anniversary of the lynching this year on Sept. 10.
For updates on event details, visit the group’s Facebook page.