(Washington, DC) - A small group gathered on the Ellipse near the White House yesterday to commemorate the end of slavery in America and celebrate "Juneteenth" or the "19th of June," 1865, the date Union troops led by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger finally arrived in Galveston, Texas, with news that the Civil War had ended and all those still held in bondage were free.
Although there were no strawberry sodas or barbecue on hand -- traditional staples at Juneteeth celebrations across the land -- there was plenty of food for thought.
"We are here today to commemorate the millions of our ancestors who died in the Middle Passage and the thousands who were lynched -- murder victims of racial violence," said the Rev. Ronald V. Myers, a physician and chairman of the National Juneteenth Christian Leadership Council based in Belzoni, Miss.
"We're celebrating the end of slavery. But, until the United States deals openly and honestly with the history of slavery, only then [can] we move as a country towards true racial reconciliation and healing," Dr. Myers, 47, said.
The audience of approximately 30 remained quiet and somber throughout the four-hour program that featured vocals by Lisa Winn of Richmond, poetry readings by Kevin Reeves of Chicago and a historical recounting of the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 by guest speaker Gregory Brown of Milwaukee, Wis. Several placards on stage showed graphic depictions of lynchings with dangling nooses and crosses set ablaze. A small table set with eight votive candles burned throughout the ceremony.
"I didn't know about Juneteenth. This has been enlightening. I look at black people -- they have strength and wisdom -- and they're giving me the strength to pursue what I want to achieve in life," said Lori Lieto, 36.
Ms. Lieto was on her way from Florida back home to Brewster, N.Y., but decided to stop in the District to see the White House. After inquiring about the program on the Ellipse, both she and her brother, Ernest Norling, decided to sit in and learn.
"I really wanted to learn about what black people have been through. I was choked up. We were sitting in our seats crying," she said. "The entire program has touched my heart."
Midway through the ceremony, professors Renee Hill and Dirk Philipsen from the Institute for the Study of Race Relations at Virginia State University in Petersburg read the names of the "victims of lynching and violence" over the years since emancipation.
One by one, names of both blacks and whites were called out from a book by Ralph Ginzburg, titled "100 Years of Lynchings."
As the roster was called, many nameless blacks were designated "unknown Negro." (The definitive list is housed at Tuskegee Institute).
"This is such a forgotten part of history. When the names are read, it brings honor and solace to the people who died alone and in terror," said Ms. Hill, who has a doctorate in political philosophy.
Nowadays, Ms. Hill said, enslavement, lynchings and Jim Crow legislation are alien concepts to students both black and white.
Juneteenth itself was unknown to Maya Williams, a Philadelphia native who now lives in New York. Ms. Williams said she only learned of the historic event after she visited Texas four years ago.
"I wish it were more publicized because more people need to attend events like this," she said.