Juneteenth marked in local ceremony

Storyteller Tyris Jones pantomimes seeing a startling sight in the reflection of a silver tray he has just enthusiastically shined for a slaveholder’s dinner party.

Nautica McCallum, ACT-SO gold medalist in dance, performs a routine that he will present among other county winners in a national competition in Philadelphia.

Sandrellis Malloy explains the message behind the artwork she will present at an ACT-SO event in Philadelphia.

Mary McLean performs ‘I’m here,’ as styled by Fantasia in The Color Purple.

Ulyses O. Thomas Jr., commander of the N.C. American Legion, District 10, holds a candle in memory of one of the nine people shot down during a prayer meeting Wednesday at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, as Scotland County Magistrate Dannie Weaver holds a flame. Youth Council advisor Rena McNeil read a list of the parishoner’s names, complete with brief biographies, prior to a moment of silence at Friday’s Juneteenth celebration.

LAURINBURG — Weeks before July 4, the Scotland County NAACP Youth Council marked the 150th anniversary of the day when those enslaved for long after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed finally learned of their own independence.

June 19, 1865 — or “Juneteenth,” — is the day when Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas, and read aloud General Order No. 3, informing the people of Texas that all slaves were free. Though the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln more than two years prior, Texas slaveowners kept that bit of information to themselves.

“For a moment we are going to pretend that we are in the Deep South,” said Rena McNeil, council advisor, during Friday’s ceremony at the Clinton Inn. “We are going to pretend that we gained wealth off of the backs of other humans.

“They don’t want to give up their wealth and their greed. They don’t want to start working for themselves — start washing their own clothes, working their own lands. So they continued to do something that was unlawful. They continued to work people in slavery because the word did not get to them that they were free.”

Back-dropped by an occasional thunderclap and a slight flickering of the overhead lights, storyteller Tyris Jones assumed the identity of a freed slave and led the group of about 30 on a journey. It began with being separated from his mother at age 5, being sold in a market where white men in white gloves felt and checked his body to see if he was “strong enough to be sold,” living as a slave on a plantation, being whipped and drug by a horse, and finally meeting Harriet Tubman and following her to freedom across the Canadian border.

“They didn’t want us to read, they didn’t want us to write, and they sure didn’t want us to praise the Lord,” he said. “… But there are three things, since I’ve been free, that can’t nobody take away from me — I can read; I can write; and I still have my faith.”

Friday’s ceremony also included the lighting of candles in memory of the nine black men and women shot and killed at Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel AME Church on Wednesday. Twenty-one-year-old Dylann Roof has been charged with nine counts of murder in the crime, which is believed to be racially motivated. In a bond hearing on Friday, family members of those who were killed told a stone-faced Roof that they had forgiven him for killing some of the most important people in their lives — and that God still loved him.

In a statement on Friday, state Rep. Garland Pierce noted Juneteenth as one that “commemorates the survival, due to God-given strength and determination, of African-Americans through extreme adversity, hardship, and triumph.”

“Juneteenth,” Pierce added, “almost always focuses on education and self-improvement.”

In that line of thought, members of the youth council gave a preview of the talents they will bring to Philadelphia later this year to compete for scholarships at the Afro- Academic, Cultural, Technological & Scientific Olympics, presenting dance, art and song.

“We must try to always recognize the talents of all God’s children,” McNeil said.

Abbi Overfelt can be reached at 910-506-3023.