Second Independence Day: Juneteenth celebrates African American freedom

Published 12:20 am Saturday, June 23, 2018

EDGARD — When Courtni Becnel started working for Whitney Plantation in Wallace, she assumed only Texans celebrated Juneteenth.

The enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, released on June 19, 1865, more than two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, were among the last to find out about their freedom in a world where news traveled slowly.

During annual celebrations at Whitney over the past two years, Becnel saw the holiday had a strong local draw for those who wanted to celebrate America’s “second independence day.”

Courtni Becnel, Farrah Rochon and Tamara Roybiskie, above, stand by donated door prizes at this week’s Juneteenth celebration.

“Juneteenth isn’t just for Texas,” Becnel said. “There were several dates African American figures looked at to celebrate emancipation, including Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays.”

Disappointed that Whitney Plantation wouldn’t be hosting a celebration this year, Becnel reached out to her aunt, Chermaine Roybiskie.

The two agreed the historic date needed to be observed. Within three days, they planned a community celebration in Edgard, celebrated Tuesday evening with food, prayer, live entertainment, a guest speaker, children’s activities and door prizes.

Becnel said approximately 30 people attended despite a last minute change of venue due to rain.

Attendees release balloons Tuesday in Edgard.

“It’s very important to celebrate our other independence day because when the Fourth of July came about, we still had people enslaved in this country,” Becnel said. “I called people I knew, my aunt called people she knew and the whole community came together within hours.”

40th Judicial District Court Judge Madeline Jasmine served as speaker, Denarold Anderson led a prayer service, Ariel Pierre sang and Bamboula 2000 member Luther Gray conducted an African drum workshop.

Several local patrons and businesses donated to the event, including author Farrah Rochon, candle maker Terry McKnight, Mr. B’s Inflatables, Raw Beauty Skin Care, Exxon Mobil and local restaurant CRS. Mary Johnson and Alice Edwards were among those who donated food.

Attendees play the drums during an African music demonstration.

Johnson said the event was significant because it presented a chance to raise awareness of Juneteenth, which is often overshadowed by Independence Day.

According to Johnson, the best way to celebrate African American independence locally is to provide resources young people need to receive an education, return home to the West Bank of St. John Parish and populate the area with successful businesses.

Roybiskie said the West St. John educational system is on the right track.

“If you look percentage wise at the number of kids who are graduating from school here and going into professions, we outshine everyone,” Roybiskie said. “We have 100 percent of our seniors graduate and at least 90 percent of them go onto higher education, the military or major workforces.”

In addition to supporting black-owned businesses, Roybiskie said it’s vital to honor the impact of Juneteenth by monitoring the news. That way, the country can avoid repeating the darkest periods of history.