Juneteenth Festival Of The Carolinas Celebrates 'Spirit Of Freedom And Togetherness'
Pape Ndiaye was sorting out an airport pickup on the phone from his office earlier this week when he casually checked to see just how renowned his Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas has become.
“Are you coming to Juneteenth?” Ndiaye asked the man on the phone.
It was an abrupt change in topic after prolonged back-and-forth about setting up a ride. Ndiaye has been in Charlotte for more than two decades, but his Senegalese accent remains thick. Between the sudden conversation swerve and the accent, there was some confusion – and a pause of silence.
“Excuse me?” the man asked.
“Are you coming to Juneteenth,” Ndiaye repeated, emphasizing each syllable of the day commemorating the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States.
There was another pause before the man said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is.”
The Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas is in its 24th year, but to many, it is still unknown. Ndiaye has been working to change that for years, and in so many ways, it is just now earning recognition as one of Charlotte’s biggest celebrations of the year. The three-day festival is the brainchild of Ndiaye, whose House of Africa shop in Plaza Midwood serves as the base of operations.
It’s three days where Thomas and Commonwealth avenues in the east Charlotte neighborhood are shut down for tens of thousands of people to enjoy music, dancing, drumming, shopping and learning.
That last one – learning – is Ndiaye’s favorite part of the festival that he started when he moved to Charlotte in 1997 as a way to educate his new community on what the day means. There are not only day camps for children to learn – a condensed version will be held this year to ensure COVID-19 safety – but programs for adults to learn about the history of Juneteenth.
“When I got here, there was no Juneteenth you could find nowhere,” Ndiaye said. “Our aim is not trying to recreate the past, but to share in the spirit of freedom and togetherness. Because I believe that Juneteenth is not just an African American holiday, but a piece of American history.”
The holiday commemorates the day the last slaves in the United States learned they had been freed. It came June 19, 1865 – two years after the Emancipation Proclamation -- when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and told some 250,000 enslaved people that the Civil War had ended two months earlier.
In the wake of protests last year against police violence and systemic racism, Juneteenth gained more recognition. This year, federal legislation has passed to make it a national holiday. President Joe Biden signed it into law Thursday.
Ndiaye is proud of the small role he’s played in educating the Carolinas about the importance of not only Juneteenth, but the heritage of all Black men and women.
“Not just Juneteenth, but Africa, the culture of Africa, about everything,” he said. “Because my grandmother used to tell me growing up that when you travel, you need to get a direction and culture and heritage. And that's the only direction that can help you move forward. And that's why we're here, to educate the teach about the rich culture and powerful heritage that we all come from.”
This year’s version will include something new: the Juneteenth Freedom March For Liberty, Justice and Equality For All. The march is intended to honor the lives of people who have died at the hands of police. Participants will be asked to carry a sign with the “name of one of our fallen brothers and sisters,” according to a flyer for the event. The march begins at 9 a.m. Saturday at Grady Cole Center and ends at the House of Africa in Plaza Midwood.
Ndiaye stressed that he wants it to be a “peaceful” march.
“All need to be in there and unify and be one,” he said. “Because I believe that blood may be thicker than water, but it is the water of life that keep all of us connected. I don't see colors. I see people. Heart. I don't see colors.”
That's his hope for what all people can see, too. He hopes for that -- along with Juneteenth to someday become recognized by everyone, in every conversation.
The Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas isn't the only celebration of the holiday taking place in the area this weekend. A few others:
Juneteenth Jam: A two-day celebration of music, dance and art highlighting African American history and culture, put on by Blumenthal Performing Arts. Events take place at Victoria Yards, Spirit Square and the NASCAR Hall of Fame uptown. It will coincide with parts of Durag Fest. More information can be found here.
Durag Fest: The fourth installment of the annual celebration of Black culture will be Saturday at Victoria Yards, the NASCAR Hall of Fame and Camp North End on Saturday. More information can be found here and here.
Harvey B. Gantt Center Juneteenth Celebration: Join Drums 4 Life at the Gantt Center plaza for a drum circle Saturday from 11-11:45 a.m. More information here. A Juneteenth African dance experience follows from 1-2:30 p.m. More information here.