The theme of the Nelson Heritage Center’s first Juneteenth celebration is “commemorate, educate, celebrate.” Heritage Center Board member and Juneteenth Board Chair Edith Napier explained how the center’s four days of Juneteenth events fulfilled those three words.
On Sunday, June 12, Charlottesville educator Maxine Holland presented on the history and significance of Juneteenth, which Napier said both educated the community and commemorated the national holiday. Three more days of events — an art exhibition June 17, youth extravaganza June 18 and community picnic June 19 — also were celebrated.
Juneteenth, which is June 19, commemorates the freeing of enslaved African Americans in 1865.
“For this community in particular it signifies the road to freedom, to liberation, and to equality — that we’re still fighting, but that we should celebrate each and every monumental milestone that we make in our struggle and our triumph towards freedom,” said Johnette Burdette, executive director of the Nelson Heritage Center.
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This year’s celebration is the first for both the Heritage Center and the Nelson community; Burdette said the Millennium Group, which runs the center, is the first organization to throw a countywide celebration for Juneteenth.
Holland is an educator, author and public speaker and has been celebrating and teaching on Juneteenth since 2000, Burdette said. Holland’s presentation drew a crowd of about 100 people, and educated the community about the importance of Juneteenth — “why we celebrate it, the journey from emancipation to freedom and really to where we are now,” according to Burdette.
Napier said she was still thinking about Holland’s lecture a week later at the June 17 art exhibition. Holland had presented facts that were new to her, like that the first enslaved Africans believed they were entering into an indentured servitude. She said Holland marked off an 8-inch-by-8 inch space and asked for 30 volunteers to stand inside, giving participants and the audience an impression of the conditions Africans endured on slave ships.
Friday’s art exhibition showcased local and regional talent “focusing on African American culture and African American artists,” Burdette said. With paint, ceramics, wood, computer graphics and more, over 20 artists from the greater Nelson community had their work displayed in the Nelson Center.
Burdette said Nelson County Public Schools Teacher of the Year Deanna Mitchelson-Shaver led Saturday’s youth extravaganza with activities, prizes and food.
She explained Sunday’s picnic was a return to the area’s history of African American homecomings and revivals.
“People would attend church, they would pile everybody in the car and drive to their community churches or their home churches. They would pack a picnic, and they would pitch a blanket and set up in the yard between services. So we want to do the same here,” she said.
Burdette said Sunday’s gathering truly celebrated “what Juneteenth and what this road to freedom really means for the African American community.”