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Longtime Newton County Juneteenth backers say efforts paid off
From left, parade organizer Terri James and Molly Luttery stand with a banner displayed during the Juneteenth parade on the Covington Square June 19. - photo by Tom Spigolon

COVINGTON, Ga. — At least two longtime, local advocates of observing Juneteenth celebrations in Newton County said they were glad a president was elected who would create a national holiday out of it.

President Joe Biden on June 17 signed into law legislation making June 19 — the annual observance of Juneteenth — a national holiday.

Chester Benton was among the original group in 2012 that formed to create a local observance of the then-little known 1865 landing by Union Army soldiers in Galveston, Texas, that led to freedom for the last slaves in the U.S.

He said some felt the need to educate the public about Juneteenth because it was a little-known historical event.

He said the effort to make the public aware about the need for observing it locally and in Georgia was done primarily by word of mouth over the last decade.

“It grew at a snail’s pace,” he said.

He said a core of about 10 to 15 people worked since 2012 to increase awareness of Juneteenth in Newton County.

“I’ve seen it grow and grow,” he said.

Benton, who now works in the Newton County Tax Commissioner’s office, formerly served as an assistant commissioner during a 20-year career with the Georgia Department of Labor.

He said he traveled throughout Georgia during his years in state government. Georgia’s urban areas knew about Juneteenth but he knew it would become widely known when awareness spread to rural areas, Benton said.

“It got into the churches — that really started it,” Benton said.

Terri James had worked since 2012 to organize events surrounding Juneteenth in Newton County, including the addition of a parade in 2018.

That effort culminated this year with the largest crowds ever seen for the event, she said.

Benton credited James and Gwen Green with keeping interest in the event locally.

James said the election of Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in 2020 played a major role in the holiday’s creation.

She said she did not “have enough words” to describe how she felt when Biden approved the new holiday after her years of work to educate people about it.

James said she first learned about Juneteenth 25 years after hearing about it being observed in Louisiana.

She said she used her personal funds at times to keep a local observance going over the years.

“I’m glad that I did,” she said.