Mayor: It’s important we remember history of Juneteenth celebration

Published 5:10 pm Monday, June 14, 2021

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NATCHEZ — The late Rev. Kevin Deason was not the first among groups to help host a Juneteenth festival in Natchez, but he was the first to introduce Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson to the annual holiday, Gibson said.

Gibson said he was contacted by a number of residents in Natchez after his weekly newspaper column was published in The Natchez Democrat on Friday. In the column, Gibson said he was first introduced to the Natchez Juneteenth celebration by his good friend Deason. However, some interpreted his comments to mean Gibson was crediting Deason with beginning the celebration in Natchez. That is not the case. Natchez’s modern Juneteenth celebration can be traced back at least 26 years.

Juneteenth, which is said to be one of the longest running African American holidays, dates back to the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States.

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In Sept. 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that would ensure that all who were enslaved would someday be free. However, the proclamation would not reach many in the southern states until after the Civil War.

Juneteenth is celebrated on the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when Union Major General Gordon Granger stood at the corners of Strand Street and 22nd Street in Galveston, Texas, and read General Order No. 3 proclaiming all enslaved people of Texas to be free.

To many African Americans, Juneteenth is considered to be Independence Day — a day of freedom. It is now widely celebrated across the nation.

By 1995, this celebration reached Natchez and included a libation ceremony at the Forks of the Road site led by Ser Seshs Ab Heter C.M. Boxley, who at the time was a resident of California.

The festivities grew and later included historical reenactments and family activities.

A 2001 Natchez Democrat article reported more than 500 people gathered on a hot Saturday afternoon for the seventh annual Juneteenth celebration, at which speaker Marquetta Goodwine “told of ancestors who had to walk the grounds of houses like Melrose with 100-pound sacks of cotton on their backs.”

When asked why Juneteenth was celebrated in 2001, Goodwine said, “It’s because you don’t have a future without a past. Children must know, and in order for them to know we’ve got to teach them.”

In 2018, Deason, the late pastor of New Direction Outreach Ministries, and a group of community sponsors built upon the Juneteenth celebration with a multi-day festival, inviting people of all ages and races to join.

Deason died in November of the following year and Gibson acknowledged Deason’s effort in a Top of the Morning article he wrote for The Natchez Democrat last week.

“Being from Texas, Kevin knew the importance of Juneteenth, and his passion to see it properly observed in Natchez is being lived out today,” Gibson states in the article.

While Deason is not credited for initiating the first Natchez Juneteenth festival, Gibson said Deason was his dear friend, pastor of the church where Gibson served as associate pastor and the first to teach him about Juneteenth and its origin.

“It is important that we know the full history and those who’ve been behind it over the years are acknowledged for their important work in bringing this holiday forward,” Gibson said. “I will forever be grateful for my friendship with Kevin Deason. … From him I learned the significance of Juneteenth being a celebration for all people. … Freedom finally became possible for everyone and not just a few. That is why we celebrate it.”

The 2021 Juneteenth celebration includes a week-long list of events put on by various groups and organizations, beginning with the celebration of the Natchez-Adams Annual Day of Unity on Monday. It begins with the ringing of church throughout the city followed a ceremony at the Natchez Convention Center.

The Day of Unity was established last year by a proclamation by former Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell and the Board of Aldermen in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and national outrage over police brutality and racial inequities in law enforcement.