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Juneteenth celebration promotes African-American culture, history and education

Earl Williams plays the blues at Juneteenth Celebration

Hilton Head Island musician Earl Williams was volunteering on Saturday, June 18, 2016 at the second annual Juneteenth Celebration in Mitchelville, playing the role of a resident of Mitchelville, the town of escaped slaves that was formed on the Un
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Hilton Head Island musician Earl Williams was volunteering on Saturday, June 18, 2016 at the second annual Juneteenth Celebration in Mitchelville, playing the role of a resident of Mitchelville, the town of escaped slaves that was formed on the Un

The Mitchelville Preservation Project kicked off its second annual Juneteenth Celebration with live music, food, art and education on Hilton Head Island on Saturday.

Juneteenth is a celebration of the abolition of slavery and the freedom of the last remaining African-American slaves in the South.

According to Courtney Young, the Mitchelville Preservation Project’s marketing director, it was important to host this celebration in Mitchelville, “the first place in which people were free to live, exist and govern themselves with the United States government.”

“You know how you have stories that are almost like man or myth, like is it for real, did it really happen? Well, Mitchelville is a story that most people don’t know, but they should know,” she said. “We’re really happy to be able to share that story now. And we’re happy to be able to give people a full experience of what that looks and feels like.”

Visitors who came were able to stroll Fish Haul Creek Park and stop by booths featuring art, crafts, quilting and basket weaving along with stations meant to educate visitors with the history of African-American heritage in the Lowcountry.

At the Praise House — a spiritual location for African-Americans to sing and hold meetings — Marlena Smalls stood before a crowd of people and asked them to educate themselves and their community.

The members of the Hallelujah Singers — Sharon Joyce-Millen, Stephanie Gaines, Gladys Jinkins, Marilyn Weatherspoon and Tammy Isham — sat behind her and waited to join together in traditional song.

In not knowing who you are, you will have the feeling of self hate.

The Hallelujah Singers-member Marlena Smalls

“In not knowing who you are, you will have the feeling of self hate,” Smalls said.

Between the educational stops and local art vendors, visitors could try an assortment of barbecue, Southern comfort and Gullah foods.

Gullah Geechee Catering LLC chef Thomas Baker said he joined in the celebrations to give back to the community and to make sure Gullah food isn’t forgotten.

A Gullah descendant on both sides of the family, Baker said he believes Gullah food is “the old African technique of cooking with all of the love of the people,” and that when he eats it, he’s reminded of how his grandmother used to prepare it for him.

“So, if I was to write a recipe for you and tell you, ‘Well, this is a Gullah recipe,’ it is not Gullah until the taste of it ... is what it was when you first had it,” he said. “It’s like nostalgia ... we use our soul to keep cooking until we can actually duplicate that taste. That is Gullah to me.”

Throughout the park, visitors could listen to several live musical performances — including an appearance from St. Helena Island native Candice Glover, the winner of “American Idol” season 12 competition — while they ate and learned.

“The Lowcountry has always been a part of me ever since I was born,” she said. “To be able to come back here and pay tribute to the history of the Lowcountry and the culture is just an honor, and I’m very grateful that I was invited here.”

Though many expressed hope for the future during the festivities, a common theme among participants and visitors was the belief that knowledge about Juneteenth and African traditions is lacking across the country.

Darryl Ramsey, a Louisville, Ky., man visiting his aunt and uncle in Bluffton, said he didn’t know anything about Juneteenth or the celebrations until the day before.

Forty-six years old and I never heard of it.

Hilton Head Island visitor, Darryl Ramsey

“Forty-six years old, and I never heard of it,” he said.

Despite not being educated himself, Ramsey said he planned to take what he had learned with him that day and teach his children about Juneteenth.

“Start teaching it in schools,” he said. “Where I’m from we had no idea about this. I’m thinking this is more of a Southern thing, and they should just let everyone know about it because this is something that we need to know about.”

Madison Hogan: 843-706-8137, @MadisonHogan

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