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Juneteenth not new to Newton
Local residents worked for years to bring attention to observance of slavery’s end in U.S.
Gwen Green
Gwen Green of the Newton County Historical Committee on Black Heritage Preservation talks about the history of Juneteenth during a rally on the Covington Square in 2020. - photo by Tom Spigolon

COVINGTON, Ga. — The newest national holiday, Juneteenth, was to be celebrated in Covington this weekend for the 10th time since 2011 with pageants, music, vendors and a traditional parade.

Longtime organizer Terri James said this year’s event on Saturday, June 19, moved to Legion Field on Mill Street after years at other locations because of the number and size of events scheduled.

She said Friday she and other organizers plan to wait and see what the weather has in store for the first Covington Juneteenth celebration since the observance of the event marking the end of slavery in the U.S. became nationally recognized.

"We'll just play it by ear," James said.

James has been willing to put in the volunteer hours over the course of a decade to organize the event because of the importance of what the holiday represents, she said.

“This is something all people need to know about,” James said.

She said she first learned of the then-little-known observance from a cousin in Louisiana when James was still employed in the telecommunications industry.

After retiring, she worked to spread the word about the observance of the event that marked the de facto ending of slavery of Black people at the end of the Civil War.

“I found out people had never heard about it,” James said.

Juneteenth’s origins date to 1865 in Texas. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 ordered an end to slavery but the order could not be implemented in parts of the U.S. still under Confederate control. 

Texas was the most western Confederate state during the war. It remained in Rebel hands until June 19, 1865, when about 2,000 Union troops arrived at Galveston Bay, Texas, and announced that Lincoln’s executive decree had freed the more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state. 

The newly freed people then began calling the day “Juneteenth,” according to information from the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. 

Texas officially made June 19 a state holiday in 1980 and total of 48 states and Washington, D.C., came to recognize Juneteenth as either a state holiday or ceremonial holiday.

This year, after a bill to establish it as the 12th federal holiday had stalled in 2020, the U.S. Senate and U.S. House overwhelmingly approved the legislation earlier this week and President Joe Biden signed it into law Thursday.

The Newton County branch of the NAACP hosted its inaugural Juneteenth celebration in 2011 with keynote speaker Tyrone Brooks, a longtime Georgia state legislator and civil rights advocate, at Bethlehem Baptist Church on Usher Street.

James and Gwen Green first organized the annual celebration in its current form in 2012 with a daytime festival at Nelson Heights Community Center on Lassiter Street and a Black History Gala at an event facility in Oxford.

The nonprofit organization, the Newton County Historical Committee on Black Heritage Preservation, was formed in 2013 and now organizes Juneteenth and other events. It also gives a scholarship from money raised at its signature fundraiser, the Black History Scholarship Gala, in February.

James said she worked to organize a number of programs, such as Easter egg hunts, and events surrounding the history of Juneteenth. The event added a parade in 2018 to its annual festival at Nelson Heights Community Center, she said. 

Organizers have focused on local African-American history — including putting a spotlight on historic communities such as Frog Town and Petty’s Hill in 2013; and making longtime Cousins Middle School band director T.K. Adams its parade grand marshal this year.

In 2020, the pandemic prompted James and other organizers to cancel any Juneteenth plans — though she said she marched with local activists before a program protesting the deaths of Black people at the hands of white police officers in other part of the U.S.

A short presentation about the origins of Juneteenth was part of the June 19, 2020, protest rally on the Covington Square. 

James said she at times over the years became frustrated that older African-Americans seemed less enthusiastic about celebrating Juneteenth’s importance than younger people. 

“Older people don’t even want to think about the past,” she said.

She credited County Commissioner Alana Sanders with helping expand the event by organizing a pageant and encouraging more volunteers to participate.

Sanders, in a statement, said, "As a public servant to the people, it is my job to assist and to be involved in various events around the county, no matter how big or small.

“Supporting my neighbors in the community with their endeavors while also being involved with history allows me to not forget the struggles and to celebrate freedom; so that I could have a better life in this country we call America. 

“It is an honor and a privilege to volunteer my service to the Juneteenth festivities. I have assisted with organizing many major events throughout my career and it is my duty to dedicate my God-given gifts and talents to others. 

“I would also like to thank my neighbors in District 3 and throughout the county that have provided their time to make this event a success. This can only get bigger and better from here on out and I am excited to see what Mrs. (Terri) James and her team, Newton County Historical Committee, has in store for years to come.

“The organization has been putting on this event for years in the county and I am grateful for what they have done to preserve history. 

“I am also thankful to Commissioner J.C. Henderson for his continuous support of this organization throughout the years and making sure that Juneteenth is recognized in Newton County.”