News Column

Petersburg presents first Juneteenth celebration on Pocahontas Island

June 23, 2014

By Amir Vera, The Progress-Index, Petersburg, Va.



June 23--PETERSBURG -- City residents and visitors caught a glimpse of the past Sunday on Pocahontas Island as Petersburg sponsored its first Juneteenth celebration.

The event featured traditional African dancing by Richmond'sEzibu Muntu African Dance Company, speeches by community officials and food from local vendors.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union Gen. Gordon Granger and his troops commanded Texas slave owners to release their charges under executive order. President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation more than two years earlier, on Jan. 1, 1863.

According to Brian Little, Petersburg's director of cultural affairs, Pocahontas Island was chosen as the venue for the celebration because of the historic nature of the island.

"This is one of the oldest, largest free black communities within the United States of America," Little said. "So that really is a significant piece of history that does need to be told again and again. Today we come for not only the legacy that was here, but for ancestral value that the land has."

Residents and organizations in the city had held other Juneteenth festivals in the past, but this is the first time Petersburg has sponsored the event.

"In 2004 ... Mrs. [Rosalyn] Dance, Mrs. Treska Wilson-Smith and I were at the [Black History] Museum, and we started the celebration of Juneteenth," Ward 3 Councilman Ken Pritchett said. "For the past 10 years, the celebration has been up and down, it's been moved a couple of times to different locations. I would like to recommend that today, since the city has started participating for real, that we celebrate Juneteenth on Pocahontas Island."

Eldon Burton, outreach representative for U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., presented a letter to City Manager William E. Johnson III that discussed SR474, which designated June 19, 2014, as Juneteenth Independence Day.

"This event is a testament to the pride you take in your community and in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It provides a wonderful opportunity to share a true community environment while commemorating the end of slavery in the United States," Burton read from Warner's letter. "Your efforts to acknowledge African-American achievements and promote mutual respect among diverse cultures in our communities enrich the lives of those around you."

Richard Stewart, honorary mayor of Pocahontas Island, who also founded Pocahontas Island's Black History Museum in 2004, spoke about why it is important to celebrate this day and its history. He said he was passionate about the event because he is the descendant of nine generations of people who have lived on the island.

"Jim Crow looked the other way on this island. White, black, Jews and Indians lived together on this island right here," Stewart said. "This was the promise land [for African-Americans]."

Stewart said the blacks who lived on Pocahontas Island had been known as Black Confederates because when the Southern states seceded, they had no choice but to fight on the Confederate Army. Stewart also said some of the African-Americans on the island owned slaves.

"Pocahontas is an awesome place. We served the Confederacy because we had to survive," Stewart said. Johnson said that because of the success of the celebration and the coordination with the city, the Juneteenth celebration will take place every year on Pocahontas Island.

"It's been a long time coming," Johnson said. "You need to tell this story of what happened today because there's not enough positive stuff coming out about Petersburg and here's an opportunity to tell the whole world what happened on June 22, 2014. We should be proud to be in Petersburg, Va., today."

- Amir Vera may be reached at avera@progress-index.com or 804-722-5155.

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(c)2014 The Progress-Index (Petersburg, Va.)

Visit The Progress-Index (Petersburg, Va.) at www.progress-index.com

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Source: Progress-Index (Petersburg, VA)


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