Juneteenth is typically a day of celebrations and learning, with events like this Libations ceremony at the Telfair Museums' Jepson Center. But Telfair and other organizations are taking the festivities online this year.
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Juneteenth is typically a day of celebrations and learning, with events like this Libations ceremony at the Telfair Museums' Jepson Center. But Telfair and other organizations are taking the festivities online this year.

Friday, June 19 marks Juneteenth, the annual holiday celebrating the end of slavery in the United States. It commemorates the day in 1865 enslaved people in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation, which had declared them free two years earlier.

 

The holiday is typically a day of celebration and education in Georgia, but those events will look different this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

 

For many, Juneteenth also feels particularly resonant this year amid widespread, nationwide protests over police brutality and racial injustice.Mahogany Bowers talks about Juneteenth, and why it feels especially important in 2020.

 

“It's an opportunity to share with people, period, no matter what color, no matter what gender, creed, religion that you are about something that is factual,” said Mahogany Bowers, founder of the Savannah organization Blessings in a Bookbag, which will hold its annual Juneteenth event Saturday.

 

“You know, Fourth of July is very real and Juneteenth is just as real,” Bowers said. “And this is the opportunity for us to be able to give that information out in a time where we are having so much turmoil as it pertains to racial equality for black and brown people across the world.”

 

Savannah’s Telfair Museums focus on education in their annual Juneteenth events. This year, historian Vaughnette Goode-Walker discussed pre-Emancipation secret schools in Savannah and Dr. Alvin Jackson of the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center talked about the Willow Hill School, which was founded by formerly enslaved people and operated for 125 years.

 

But instead of the usual event at one of the Telfair’s sites, the lecture Thursday night happened online. The Sandy Spring Slave Museum, too, hosted a virtual celebration.

 

Macon’s weeklong series of events is moving online as well, including a virtual drum circle last weekend and a series of Facebook Live and Zoom forums and discussions.

 

Unexpected Atlanta is hosting a virtual barbecue Friday and Saturday, complete with tours on some of America’s less-well-known history — including the history of barbecue itself.

 

But some Juneteenth events, especially those outdoors, will continue in-person. 

 

Tybee Island will mark the day with the annual wade-in, an event that hearkens back to wade-in protests against the segregation of the beach. 

 

Farther down the coast, a celebration is scheduled in the waterfront park in St. Mary’s. And the group Bicycle Ride Across Georgia is organizing bike rides on Friday and Saturday in Brunswick in honor of the holiday and of Ahmaud Arbery, the black jogger who was killed there in February.

 

Another March on Atlanta is planned for Friday, to start in Centennial Olympic Park, and in Conyers on Friday the Juneteenth Jubilee for Youth will celebrate teenage minority entrepreneurs.

 

Bowers said she initially planned to skip the Juneteenth celebration she typically organizes because of concerns about spreading COVID-19. But then President Trump scheduled a rally in Tulsa on June 19.

 

“To have a rally on that date, it was past disrespectful,” she said. “And it showed me that this was an opportunity for me to have a learning moment with my community, with my city, with my country.”

 

Bowers said she hopes the controversy over the Trump rally inspires people to learn about Juneteenth, and about Tulsa’s history as a thriving Black economic center that white rioters burned down.

 

The Trump rally has since been rescheduled to Saturday.

 

At the Blessings in a Bookbag event Saturday, masks will be provided and strongly encouraged, and kids’ art supplies will be in individual Ziploc bags to avoid spreading the virus through crayons and markers. 

 

Other in-person Juneteenth events are also encouraging attendees to follow CDC guidelines about masks and social distancing.

 

Bowers said she hopes Juneteenth will bring about important discussions this year, despite the challenges of the pandemic.

 

“In the midst of COVID-19, we have to be six feet apart,” Bowers said. “But to be able to actually get the information and look in that person’s face, to look in their eyes, which we have to do now because we have masks, right? So that’s a great thing.”