EVERY JUNE, when Vaughnette Goode-Walker pours libations on the slate gray steps of the Jepson, she’s not doing it to commemorate the end of slavery.
Rather, the ritual splash of water that commences Savannah’s annual Juneteenth Jubilee acknowledges the contributions that have sprung forth since General Order No. 3 was read in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, announcing that the enslaved were now free.
“What we are really celebrating is the result of that freedom, and the culture that came after,” reasons Goode-Walker, who curates the Juneteenth programming for Telfair Museums, taking place this week, June 9 and 11.
Now in its tenth year, the Telfair’s Juneteenth Jubilee offers a multi-sensory combination of kaleidoscopic visual art, foot-stamping rhythms and engaging storytelling for all ages. Thursday evening opens with a well-deserved homage to local artist Arthur “Artie” Milton, the talent behind the iconic portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that hangs in the Savannah Civic Center, followed by a lecture by renowned preservationist and Gullah Geechee leader Emory Shaw Campbell.
The dynamic Chieftess of the Gullah Geechee Nation, Queen Quet, joins mesmerizing historical interpreter Jamal Touré to lead the pouring of libations that will kick off Saturday’s free Family Day, calling all within earshot to take part.
Featuring basket making workshops with master weaver Greg Grant and other hands-on musical and art activities, the afternoon culminates with a rollicking concert with rhythmic guru David Pleasant.
“Telfair Museums is pleased to have been part of the national observance of Juneteenth for a full decade,” says Harry DeLorme, Senior Curator of Education.
“Juneteenth today is a time to reflect on history, celebrate freedom and promote understanding of African American cultural heritage.”
While other Juneteenth celebrations have a general focus on freedom, the Telfair’s jubilee has always centered upon the stories, traditions, music and art of the Gullah Geechee people who fished and flourished along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. The first enslaved people to be set free in the South, the Gullah Geechee preserved many West African traditions and their African-based dialect, passing them down through generations and continuing to fight to protect their coastal lands.
Experiencing Juneteenth through this lens not only connects past events to the present but grounds them in local history.
“Here in the city of Savannah, it’s important to know that we are part of the Gullah Geechee corridor,” says Goode-Walker, adding that the best way to learn more is to attend Thursday’s talk with Campbell, who helped found the Penn Center on St. Helena Island.
“We had African people coming from Daufuskie, all the Sea Islands, who came here by water. Savannah was always a port where people were coming and going.”
A past director of cultural diversity at the Telfair, Goode-Walker led the museum group’s first Juneteenth celebration in 2006 at the Owens-Thomas House with the customary “jumping of the broom,” along with local philanthropists Linda and Walter Evans.
However, the 105-degree heat prompted a move to the shaded marble landing of the Jepson Center the following year.
“‘Jumping Juneteenth at the Jepson’ is a lot cooler,” she laughs.
Celebrating freedom from slavery at one of Savannah’s most prominent cultural spaces also puts its significance squarely in the mainstream metanarrative.
The event brings an opportunity for locals and visitors to immerse in African American history beyond the requisite events of Black History Month and Civil Rights tributes, adding another layer towards a more complete and inclusive cultural identity.
“This is American history. This is what happened to the Africans when they got here. It’s not separate from the story of America,” continues Goode-Walker, who serves as director for the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum and owns and operates the African American-focused walking tour company, Footsteps in Savannah.
Juneteenth headliner David Pleasant agrees, but he’s not so sure that America has accepted its multi-faceted heritage.
“It’s still very much a parallel history,” muses the Savannah-born percussionist and composer, who now bounces between Brooklyn, Switzerland and wherever else his career takes him.
“Even though you have this rich culture, it is sparsely illuminated. It’s certainly not considered the ‘normal’ narrative.”
A true griot who captivates audiences with performances that bridge African polyrhythms and quantum physics, Pleasant has made it his life’s work to bring the Gullah Geechee hand claps and shouts into a contemporary, international realm.
He too defines Juneteenth as more about liberty than abolition, but he believes it continues to hold different meanings for different people.
“We have a two-tiered definition of freedom in this country. For one group, freedom is an ideal, this lofty, existential thing,” he says.
“For the other group, it’s about being in chains or not being in chains.”
That stark contrast makes Juneteenth all the more relevant to people of all stripes who seek a broader, more unified experience of American history.
“For me, it’s all about education. We celebrate culture, but we make sure people know what Juneteenth is when they leave,” promises Goode-Walker, pointing out that for African Americans, the holiday marks the joyful point when their ancestors could move forward, unshackled.
“When non-people of color wish me a ‘Happy Juneteenth!’ I’m like, whoa, they get it!”
Juneteenth Jubilee: A Celebration of Freedom
Lecture with Emory Shaw Campbell: 6pm, Thurs., June 9
Free Family Day: 1-4pm Sat., June 11; David Pleasant concert, 3pm
Where: Jepson Center for the Arts, 207 W. York St.