Juneteenth celebration ignites community spirit

Published 8:50 am Wednesday, June 21, 2023

LAPLACE — “Information is liberation,” community activist Derron Cook explained during the fourth annual St. John the Baptist Parish Juneteenth Freedom Day program.

On the eve of January 1, 1863, enslaved African Americans scattered in churches and homes across the country awaited the news that the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect. Their prayers were answered at the stroke of midnight, but many others remained enslaved over the next two-and-a-half years simply because they did not have access to information. Union soldiers, many of who were Black, marched onto the plantations in confederate states to spread the news of freedom. For 250,000 enslaved in Texas, freedom did not arrive until roughly 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas on June 19, 1865.

“Although we have long been celebrating in African-American communities, Juneteenth remained largely unknown until the recent signing of legislation declaring it the federal holiday in 2021,” Cook said.

In honor of America’s second Independence Day – the first where all Americans were free – members of the St. John Parish community gathered outside of the Parish Government Building in LaPlace in a celebration of music, heritage and liberation. The morning began with a march down Airline Highway from the LaPlace Home Depot and continued with a showcase of talent inclusive of all ages.

The From My Heart to Yours Praise Team opened the program with prayer and the song “Every Praise.” Gospel music selections were performed throughout the event in recognition of June being Black Music Month. The Juneteenth program also featured a liturgical dance by Jenna Mitchell and recitations of poetry from local children. A longing for freedom and equity was embedded in the words from 20th Century poets Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes. Cook’s daughter, Kairah, also presented a multi-media art piece she created titled “Silence” with commentary reflective of Black Americans’ hesitance to speak their mind out of fear of becoming victims of violence.

Pastor Forell Bering, who organizes the annual St. John Parish MLK Day March and Rally, spoke about the importance of adults sharing their stories with the next generation.

“The young people are not the lost generation. They are the left generation,” he said. “We have left them to the iPads in social media. They are brilliant, they are smart; they are money driven, global thinkers.”

Rondell Joseph of the St. James Parish NAACP chapter, founder of the Boys to Men Jump Start program coming to the River Parishes soon, described Juneteenth as a powerful holiday that reminds us of the responsibility to create a brighter future for the youth.

“No matter your color, black, white, we need to get the youth off the street and stop some of this violence. We need to get them into college and vocations,” he said.

Superintendent Rebecca Johnson, who could not be present due to a family matter, sent a letter that shared her commitment to working toward a more equitable future.

“As you march today, march for a day that should be celebrated every day to remind us that continued action is needed to take place as we work toward an equitable present and future for everyone, especially for our children,” she said. “I am committed to our children growing up in an environment that provides them with equitable opportunities so you have access to a school system that provides high-quality education. Yes, we still have much work to do, but we will continue making progress and elevating excellence each and every day.”

Georgia Keller of Every Vote Counts said change is made possible by participation in local elections. She invited those in attendance to complete on-site voter registration.

Also present was Tish Taylor of the Concerned Citizens of St. John, representing her father Robert Taylor, grand marshal of the Juneteenth event. More than 150 years after the enslaved were freed, Taylor said the push for freedom continues with advocating for clean air, water and soil

“Please understand that we are not fighting. We are advocating. We are trying to make sure that our government regulates our industries,” she said.

Representing the local government, Economic Development Director Michelle Jenkins Miller shared the support of Jaclyn Hotard, the first parish president to proclaim Juneteenth as a holiday in St. John Parish.

“She is committed to making sure we help promote the inclusion of all history in celebration of Juneteenth in our community. I am grateful for her leadership and to everyone who plays a part in making this event in march possible each year,” Miller said. “I’m especially pleased that we can gather here together with overwhelming support for one another and a vision for our future.”

More photos are available at lobservateur.com.