Forsyth County and metro Atlanta residents gathered this week for what many agree were the county’s first ever public Juneteenth celebrations.
Crowds gathered both on Friday and Saturday to learn more about Juneteenth, have conversations about what racial injustices black community members still face in the county, and to simply bring everyone together to celebrate a holiday that is often forgotten about in majority-white communities.
The Community Remembrance Project of Forsyth County held the first Juneteenth event on Friday, June 19, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Fowler Park in Cumming.
The group was founded and has been active in Forsyth County since 2017, but member Jolie Creuser said that the group does not usually get so much attention as they are at work on their remembrance project, which hopes to shine a light on the county’s history.
The group made headlines back in January when they collected soil 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.
Now the group is working to place a historical marker in the same spot, but with recent talks of change in America and in Forsyth, member Christiane Walker wanted to commemorate Juneteenth this year by providing some history and education on the holiday and inviting black community members to speak about their own experiences and start a discussion about race in Forsyth County.
“When all of the current events started happening, we wanted to do something in our role to continuously educate our community,” Creuser said.
With a small, quiet event in mind, the group started reaching out to black community members in Forsyth and neighboring Gwinnett. They ended up with a panel of 12 people who volunteered to come and bravely share their stories with the community. About 170 guests came out to the event and found a place at a picnic table or in a lawn chair in the grass, enjoying food from BBQ Haven, a black-owned local restaurant, while they waited for the panel to start.
Before everyone on the panel introduced themselves, Georgia State University student Monique Bentley introduced guests to the significance and history surrounding Juneteenth — a holiday celebrating the emancipation of enslaved people in the U.S.
“The very first known celebration of Juneteenth was in Texas in 1866,” Bentley said. “Remember these are now free people. They didn’t have any land to celebrate, so what they did was march down streets, they had parades, they wore their best dress clothing, they had their barbeque …. But they also had rodeos, they went fishing, they played baseball — just everything you can think of to celebrate and to recognize the form of freedom that we as African people have today.”
Bentley noted that the state of Georgia did not officially recognize Juneteenth as a holiday until 2011 — just nine years ago. This is also the first year that many have started to see companies and more diverse communities across the country acknowledge and join in on the holiday to show support to black citizens.
“Juneteenth isn’t just celebrated by African Americans,” Bentley said. “It should be celebrated by all ethnic groups. Now, with it being 2020, I’ll look at this year as people opening up that third eye. A year where we gain that 2020 vision.”
After the panelists introduced themselves, B.T. Harmon, Atlanta resident and creator of the Catlick podcast, served as moderator and asked questions provided by crowd members on index cards.
With three Forsyth County students on the panel, the group discussed in-depth the issues ingrained in the county’s education system. Jessica Lewis, now 30 years old, went to West Forsyth High School when she was younger, and she said being back in Forsyth County made her anxious.
She said students harassed and threatened her simply for being a black girl in Forsyth, and it broke her heart to hear from other panelists that black students are still going through much of the same — just through different channels such as Snapchat and Instagram.
Promise, a rising freshman in the county (the group asked that her last name not be revealed to ensure her safety), shared her own story of the blatant and threatening racism that she has experienced from other kids in the county.
“For anyone who thinks this county — that racism doesn’t exist here or that if it does, it’s very few and far between or that children now in 2020 are different than their grandparents were, when you hear this, you’ll see that’s not true,” said Promise’s mother.
Her mom read to the group messages that students sent to Promise through Snapchat. Only some of at least 150 messages sent in a group of about 40 students revealed horrific threats made against her, suggestions from other kids that she kill herself, pictures sent to her of slaves being whipped, slurs used over and over, and children saying that black kids do not belong in Forsyth County.
After pulling Promise out of school, her mom said that a teacher had told her daughter that she just needed to toughen up and that the boys messaging her on Snapchat would not actually hang her.
The next day, Promise attempted suicide.
Her sister, Faith, found her in their shared bathroom overdosing on sleeping medication, and an ambulance later rushed her to the emergency room. Promise spent the next couple of weeks at a mental health clinic. She still has scars on her left arm from the days after when she tore at her own flesh with a pencil, saying that she did not feel safe in her own skin.
Many in the crowd sat in shocked silence as Promise and her mom told their story.
“None of us here can make it right or fix it, but I know that I’ve been heartbroken and inspired by everything you just said, and it’s changed my life a little bit,” Harmon said to Promise.
Harmon turned to the crowd and asked everyone who felt heartbroken and inspired by Promise’s story to raise their hands, and every person immediately reached up their arm in support.
The other panelists closed out the event by discussing why they are angry, but also what they are hopeful for.
Alana Watkins, a community member and former circulation manager at Forsyth County News, said that she hopes everyone walks away from the event trying not to be color blind, but “color brave.” She called on others to embrace, celebrate and normalize all of their differences instead of turning away from them — an idea that some took with them when Atlanta activist Amisha Harding asked them to write down a personal commitment to change at another Juneteenth event held the next day.
Forsyth County United, the group responsible for the gathering of around 900 protesters in downtown Cumming earlier this month, organized the Saturday Juneteenth celebration at the Cumming Fairgrounds to try to bring the community together for the holiday and continue taking steps forward in their efforts to bring change to the county and surrounding communities.
“If Forsyth County can make such an impact and do something that is unimaginable like celebrate black culture on the Cumming Fairgrounds, then if Forsyth County can do it, it can happen anywhere,” organizer Keisha Johnson said.
During the event, black-owned business owners set up booths to sell their t-shirts, candles and other items, and local food vendors such as Kona Ice and Diva’s BBQ served to guests out of food trucks lined up outside of the outdoor stadium at the fairgrounds. Inside the stadium, the organizers and volunteers played music, sold Forsyth County United shirts and, later on, introduced speakers such as Harding, who spoke of her recent experiences advocating for change in Atlanta.
There was plenty of excitement as families started showing up and kids gravitated toward the inflatable obstacle course and yard games set up at the end of the stadium.
Forsyth County resident Bret LaBarre said that he enjoyed the event and seeing his two kids, Avery and Oliver, having fun playing cornhole and bouncing around in the inflatable. He said he only wished that there was a booth set up with information about Juneteenth and its significance for those wanting to learn more about the holiday.
While the event saw more than 100 attendees, Forsyth County United organizers Johnson, Candice Horsley and Grace Cronan expected a larger crowd to come out to support the group and the movement. The smaller crowd, however, may have been due to a recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Georgia.
“I am sure many in this county do not support anything welcoming diverse people and seeking positive change, but remember we are in the middle of a pandemic, too,” Kenni Grays wrote in a comment on the Forsyth County United Facebook page. “Georgia’s cases are out of control, and social distancing only goes so far with crowds touching the same surfaces. We opted to stay safe at home, but we support you with all our hearts.”
The organization received similar comments and messages from many others in the Facebook group who were worried about exposing their family members to the virus.
Despite setbacks caused by the pandemic, members of Forsyth County United and the Community Remembrance Project of Forsyth County are excited to see such a positive change in the community.
“Both groups are such a fresh breath of air in Forsyth county,” Creuser said. “It’s amazing.”