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Young adults of St. Mark's organizing Laurel's Emancipation Day

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Bernice Brooks has lived in Laurel's predominantly African-American Grove community for 92 years, and one of the highlights for her while growing up and as an adult has always been Laurel's Emancipation Day, the annual celebration of the freeing of enslaved Africans in this country.

Emancipation Day is recognized as Laurel's oldest festival, dating back to the early 1900s. Brooks said her father was the director of the event during that time, and as a small child, she worked alongside him in organizing the festival.

"When I was 5, I started tagging along with my father and helping him with small things," Brooks recalled. "They would start the big preparation for it on Thursdays, and for me, the parade and dance were the most exciting parts. I couldn't go inside as a child to the adult dance but we'd hear the loud band from inside the old hall on Eighth Street and would dance outside on the ground."

That big dance, where people wore their best outfits, hasn't been held for a long time and last year, the parade was canceled.

"The parade was the most important thing, with friends and family coming from New York, Richmond and everywhere," Brooks said. "I missed it."

But this year, the parade will make a comeback for the Sept. 7 Emancipation Day festival and it's being billed by the event's new organizers as a return to the past, along with new activities such as a 5k walk/run, more vendors, speakers, games and other events.

St. Mark's United Methodist Church is still running the event, but this year its Young Adult Ministry members have taken over the organizing.

"Our pastor [the Rev. Robbie Morganfield] asked us to head it up and revamp it this year to give the festival a young adult's perspective," said 23-year-old Tonya Johnson, a festival organizer. "For so long, our parents were in charge, so it's being passed down to us now."

Morganfield, who's been pastor at St. Mark's for five years, said his concern was that, in addition to the event being much smaller, more important was that the Emancipation Day celebration had lost a connection to its rich history.

"I wanted to recapture that and Mrs. Brooks and others led me to believe that it was time to go back to the drawing board," Morganfield said. "This was a celebration of African Americans in this community and the nation and how they defined and contributed to the local and regional areas. That original concept had been lost."

The theme for this year's Emancipation Day, which Morganfield penned, is A Celebration of History, Culture and Freedom; Reclaiming, Remembering, Relating. It will carry over into planned events, many which are new activities, such as holding the walk/run at 8 a.m. to kick off the festival. The run/walk will start at St. Mary's Place and Main Street.

"We're so excited about the 5k and so far we have 25 people registered, with more expected on the day of the event," said Jacqueline Jones, the run's coordinator and St. Mark's youth and Christian education minister.

The registration fee is $20, with proceeds going to the University of Maryland Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology for community outreach in Baltimore. Morganfield said the run/walk is a way of using Emancipation Day to raise awareness and funds about an illness that affects so many people.

"It's also a way to include the broader community in Emancipation Day and show that it's not just an event for African Americans but the entire community, regardless of who you are," he said.

Another change this year is that the festival's parade will be held at 11 a.m., instead of in the afternoon as in past years. The youth organizers say having it on the front end will be a way to usher people into the full day of activities they have planned at Emancipation Community Park.

"I don't care when it's held, as long as we have it," said Brooks, who will be the parade's grand marshal.

Nicole Nicholson, 32, who grew up in the Grove and always looked forward to Emancipation Day, is the parade organizer. She said city officials have been helpful and she also used the Internet to attract participants.

"So far, we have 18 units, which is close to what it used to be," Nicholson said. "We have four marching bands, motorcycles, cars and church youth dancers. When I was 5 and 6, I danced with St. Mark's Cadettes in the parade. They will be back this year."

There will also be baseball games, a variety of food vendors, a moon bounce, contests, raffles, step teams, a DJ, sack races and, for the first time, T-shirts with the festival's theme and logo.

To highlight what Morganfield said is the real meaning behind Emancipation Day, this year after the parade there will be a program at the park on the historical and cultural significance of the festival. Organizers said the program is part of the new beginning they envision for the festival, in terms of letting people know the celebration's significance.

"Senior church members who remember when the festival was a three-day event will talk of those days and how they still connect to it now," Johnson said.

One of the speakers, of course, will be Bernice Brooks. She plans to tell the crowd about the social aspects of Emancipation Day and about the festival's beginnings, which some erroneously think started at St. Mark's.

"It started with Abraham's Lodge [the Benevolent Sons and Daughters of Abraham Lodge No. 22], and my father was a lodge member. When the older lodge members passed, the church took it over," Brooks said.

Brooks is excited to see the new energy going into this year's Emancipation Day, with this year's organizers' plans of it getting bigger in future years.

"It's very important to have this. Emancipation Day is something our parents struggled to keep going and so did we," Brooks said. "I hope and pray that this generation will keep it going."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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