Juneteenth Celebration: 18 years and going strong

For the 18th year, the Juneteenth Celebration Committee of Dunkirk put together a family-friendly event celebrating African American heritage, but eclectic in activity.

Held at the Chautauqua County Fairgrounds, the two-day celebration featured traditional African American events such as a worship service, African storytelling, an African Dance Troupe from the African Cultural Center in Buffalo, African headwrap, and performances by Gospel Music groups the New Gospel Sounds of Dunkirk, The New Gospelettes, an a cappella group from Erie, Vizion of Rochester and JUDAH of Rochester.

Food selections such as pulled pork, barbecued ribs, and barbecued chicken were available for purchase at the refreshment booth in Floral Hall.

Lorraine (Slaton) Torain said, “People have been in and out all day.”

Frank Torain was busy seasoning ribs for the dinners which have a good reputation locally. Visitor Mary Ellen Decker, retired Social Studies teacher from Dunkirk High School, told Frank, “This (the dinner) really was good.”

In addition to food, those attending could look at displays or participate in games and activities. Some children played in a bounce house while others danced along with a computer program.

In one corner, Sandra Lewis, who teaches mathematics at SUNY Fredonia, talked to those who came to visit her display about quilting patterns. Her display explained freedom quilts which may have been used prior to the Civil War to help slaves escape to the North. Some believe the symbols on the quilts gave information to the slaves.

Lewis, dressed in an outfit handmade in Africa with the Ashanti symbol for the omnipotence of God, helped Katrina Harper, 7, try to match pieces to create one of the quilting patterns.

Lewis said, “I am not good at most crafts, but I can do quilting.”

Vendors were on site as were community organizations. Two members of the state police answered questions about careers with the state police. An interested Bianca Moore listened to the troopers explain that a civil service exams will take place in October. She said becoming a trooper was “a possibility” for her.

“Juneteenth” is a combination of June and nineteenth. It was June 19, 1865 when federal forces led by Major Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to proclaim that the Civil War was over and that the slaves were now free. On Sept. 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary emancipation proclamation stating that slaves would be freed in any of the Confederate States of America that did not return to the Union by Jan. 1, 1863. None of the states returned and on Jan. 1, 1863, the slaves were technically free.

However, it wasn’t until the end of the Civil War that enforcement was possible in Texas. In Texas, according to the Texas State Library and Archives commission website, “Large celebrations on June 19 began in 1866 and continued regularly into the early 20th century.” Later celebrations spread to other states.

In 1996, citizens of the Dunkirk-Fredonia community co-sponsored the first Juneteenth Celebration to be observed in Chautauqua County. The main goal of this celebration is to commemorate and perpetuate the heritage, culture and contributions of African Americans.

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