There’s a new holiday in Athens, but it’s one that’s been around for 152 years.
For Athens, that day is May 4, the day in 1865 when the Union army arrived and freed the slaves in town and the surrounding countryside, who then gathered with their loved ones at the town hall, hoisting a flag up what they then deemed the “flagpole of liberty.”
While many marches that take place downtown are in protest, Thursday’s vigil and rally marking the “day of jubilee” was one of celebration and honoring ancestors.
June 19, or Juneteenth as it’s commonly referred to, is celebrated widely by the African-American community as the day in 1865 that slavery came to an end, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, TX and began enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation, signed two years earlier. Different cities have their own individual “day of jubilee,” however, and several groups in Athens are ready to celebrate on May 4 every year from now on.
The march was organized by the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, led by Mokah and Knowa Johnson, along the Athens Area Black History Committee, Athens for Everyone, the Economic Justice Coalition, the Athens Area Democratic Party, the Unitarian Universal Fellowship and several prominent community leaders.
Marchers filled the sidewalk a whole block at a time as they made their way from the Arch to City Hall, where they were met by Venus Jarrell playing his saxophone at the top of the steps. Several African-American speakers, singers and poets paid homage to their ancestors, and the crowd joined in to sing gospel songs once used by slaves to draw strength in the fields. “Song and music is something you can use as a tool to heal,” said Mokah Johnson.
Just yards away, Athens’ double-barrelled cannon from the Civil War era sat, pointed north.
Earlier in the evening, a smaller crowd gathered for a short ceremony at Baldwin Hall. In November 2015, 105 unmarked graves were found during an expansion project on the building, and after testing of the 30 remains that contained enough DNA material, most were discovered to be of African descent. Given that the Old Athens Cemetery, which sits adjacent to Baldwin Hall, was closed nearly a decade before the end of the Civil War, it’s almost certain that many of those buried in the forgotten lot were slaves.
When the University of Georgia initially failed to include the black community in its decision to reinter the graves to the historically segregated Oconee Hill Cemetery, which is in step with state law regarding the matter, many felt that the ancestors, who may have living descendants still in Athens, should have been laid to final rest in a prominent African American cemetery, such as the Brooklyn Cemetery or the Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery, where they might be nearer to family members.
The crowd gathered around a wreath of white flowers, four white candles and an urn painted by Broderick Flanagan. The West African Adinkra symbols carrying meanings like strength, courage and freedom. He included the date of Athens’ first day of jubilee in 1865 and the first celebration after, 152 years later in 2017—the first of many, according to Mokah Johnson.
Back at the steps of city hall, Mokah Johnson quoted rapper Common as she incited the crowd of about 75 black and white attendees to stand as one to overcome discrimination for a brighter future with “the wisdom of the elders and the energy of the youth.”
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