Though enacted by President Lincoln in 1863, one of the first actual celebrations of Emancipation in the South didn’t happen until after the Civil War ended, when Federal forces began enforcing the order in Galveston, Texas.
Juneteenth -- the actual date was June 19, 1865 -- is now celebrated annually around the nation. In Savannah, the Telfair Museums takes the lead in marking the commemoration.
“When we first started, I jokingly called it the first annual Juneteenth celebration,” says Vaughnette Goode-Walker, Telfair Museums’ Juneteenth Coordinator and one of its main initiators. While maybe not initially intended to be a yearly event for Telfair Museums, it has become just that.
The museums’ participation “goes back to an effort to reinterpret the Owen-Thomas House site,” says Harry DeLorme, Telfair Museums’ Senior Curator of Education.
This Thursday and Saturday, Telfair Museums will once again put on a celebration including free events that are open to the public with lectures, workshops, exhibits, demonstrations, and a performance by the Georgia Sea Island Singers in honor of the holiday.
6:30 p.m., Thu., June 5 at Second African Baptist Church: Lecture on “Savannah’s First Generation of Free African American Elite in the New Republic, 1790-1830.”
Telfair Museums’ Juneteenth observance will kick-off with a lecture by Dr. Whittington Johnson, author of Black Savannah, 1788-1864, which looks at the lives of African Americans in Savannah during slavery. Dr. Johnson attended Savannah State University from 1962-1967 and was a professor of History at the University of Miami for 32 years before retiring in. His lecture will be free and open to the public, as are all Juneteenth events at the Telfair Museums.
10 a.m.-noon, Sat., June 7 at Jepson Center for the Arts: Mbira Workshop
Tony Pizzo, director of the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, and T.J. Reddy, a Savannah-born musician, will be teaching a workshop on constructing and playing the traditional African instrument called the mbira. During the workshop each attendee will be given an assembly kit, made by Pizzo, and will be instructed on how to build their own mbira. Reddy, who has written music specifically for the mbira, will then assist and teach the new creators of instruments on how to play.
Pizzo, who has collaborated with Telfair Museums’ Juneteenth events before, explains how these workshops contribute to honoring Juneteenth and the African musical tradition:
“We value bringing more traditional African music to Savannah because it illustrates and emphasizes the influence that African culture has had on our seaport city,” Pizzo says. “Once somebody has the experience of making an instrument and understanding the processes involved in giving an object a voice, it gives them more insight into what they can do on their own to make music.” The workshop will be free and open to the public.
1-4 p.m., Sat., June 7 at Jepson Center for the Arts: Juneteenth Free Family Day
This month’s Free Family Day at Jepson Center will also be honoring Juneteenth by providing artist demonstrations, hands-on activities, and a performance by the Georgia Sea Island Singers. Some of the main events will include a demonstration by Gregory Grant, a sweetgrass basket maker and storytelling by artist Jamal Toure. The Georgia Sea Island Singers, known for their preservation of the African-American culture through Gullah Islands, will help in concluding this year’s celebration with a musical performance at 3 p.m.
In addition to these events and activities, Jepson Center for the Arts will be exhibiting Slavery and Freedom in Savannah until August 31st. The exhibit, which is based off the book Slavery and Freedom in Savannah, focuses on the lives of both free and enslaved-people of Savannah during the time of slavery.
It also reveals some of the history behind Savannah’s most notable homes, the Owen-Thomas House and Telfair Academy (former home of museum benefactor Mary Telfair).
Juneteenth is made especially relevant to Savannah through our own city’s history. Telfair Museums’ events in the past and this year are helping contribute to that memory and Goode-Walker explains, “Because of the Telfair’s involvement, more people are being educated about the celebration of freedom that is Juneteenth.”