EASTON — EASTON - A free black man sat on the steps of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and wondered aloud whether his brother had been taken into bondage. Nearby, Harriet Tubman carried a 4-foot-long rifle.
This scene from the days of slavery was performed yesterday by re-enactors who took part in Easton's first Juneteenth celebration. Easton has joined a number of communities that commemorate Juneteenth, a celebration marking the end of slavery. Easton was chosen as the site for the festival because it's near the birthplace of Frederick Douglass, one of the best-known leaders of the abolitionist movement.
Today is the actual day of Juneteenth. Moonyene Jackson-Amis, who helped organize the event, said Easton's festival was held yesterday so it would not conflict with another Eastern Shore observance scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. today at Billy Gene Jackson Sr. Park in Salisbury.
Jackson-Amis, who also is an Easton City Council member, played the part of Tubman. Other Juneteenth celebrations are scheduled today at Fort McHenry in Baltimore and at Germantown Community Center in Montgomery County.
Jackson-Amis said Easton's Juneteeth celebration helped to preserve black heritage while bringing the white and black communities together.
"From a historical perspective, dealing with slavery and emancipation, it's one of the few times I've seen people come together in a sincere celebration of progress," she said.
Juneteenth began June 19, 1865, when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger marched into Galveston, Texas and proclaimed the end of slavery. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed about 2 1/2 years earlier, Southern states refused to recognize it. The newly liberated slaves inaugurated a celebration that continues to this day.
Texas declared Juneteenth an official state holiday in 1980. Ten other states have adopted similar legislation. It is not an official holiday in Maryland.
If the Easton festival grows, it will encourage wider recognition of the celebration in the state, said Godfrey Blackstone, a commissioner for African-American history and culture in Maryland. Godfrey said he hopes the festival will "bring together people" and instill a sense of heritage in a new generation.
Many young people said they learned about Juneteenth for the first time because of the festival. Some took a break from the early days of their summer vacation to watch the events. Others, perhaps tempted by the aroma of food wafting through the air or the grinding sound of the snowball machine, stopped by on bikes and ended up watching the events.
One group of local girls used the festival grounds to set up a booth educating people about the dangers of smoking. Most young people in attendance left aware of the purpose of the festival.
"It's about our culture," said Brittany Nichols, 16, of Easton.
The church was chosen as the site of the festival because abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke there in 1878, a year after it opened, said Jackson-Amis. Douglass was born a slave in 1818 in Talbot County. He later escaped and became internationally known as an eloquent spokesman for the abolitionist cause.
Easton has recently been the center of a controversy over a statue of Frederick Douglass. Some in the county, where 16 percent of residents are black, argued that the statue should be erected in front of the courthouse. Others said the prominent spot should be reserved for tributes to veterans. A 3-2 County Council vote in March allowed for a Douglass tribute to be placed in front of the courthouse, near a statue honoring 84 county residents who fought for the Confederacy.
At Easton's Juneteenth celebration, there was no sign of a divided community. Instead, people ate roasted corn and shared laughs with their neighbors.