An Ode to Freedom
The struggles and triumphs of African-Americans, past and present, were celebrated Saturday at the annual Triad Juneteenth Africana Festival at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum Annex.
The local event and Juneteenth festivals around the nation mark the day – June 19, 1965 – that the last slaves in the then-burgeoning nation learned of their freedom.
Organizer Cheryl Harry is encouraged that the festival draws thousands of loyal attendees year after year. The event is a celebration of how far African-Americans have come, she said.
“Freedom and independence is perpetual, the celebration never ends,” said Harry. “..It represents progress to me.”
Food, music and special guests helped to make the event memorable, as did the bevy of historical displays and cultural exhibits.
LaVon Williams, a self-described “urban folk artist” generated a lot of attention. The Florida native and current Kentucky resident is a woodcarver who created the National Black Theatre Festival logo at the request of NBTF founder Larry Leon Hamlin. The logo has garnered Williams attention from across the globe.
“Larry said it would have the power to travel everywhere, it would be that powerful,” said Williams. “It’s kind of amazing. When I first did it I just didn’t realize what it would end up meaning and would mean to so many people when they see it.”
Williams’ original oval-shaped carving of the logo was on display. At Hamlin’s suggestion, he changed it into the shape of a Zulu shield to represent of the power of theater to change lives. The logo, filled with images representing different aspects of theatre, has been the signature of the massive NBTF ever since.
Williams comes from a long line of woodcarvers, having served as an apprentice under his brother. He wants to keep the art form alive; therefore, he now has apprentices of his own. He hopes to return to Winston-Salem’s next Juneteenth to conduct a live carving demonstration.
Juneteenth did its part to educate attendees about the current struggle. A number of organizations set up displays to tout some of today’s most pressing social issues. The NAACP set up a display right beside one for Democracy North Carolina. Both groups are sounding the alarm about what they say are efforts by Republicans in the General Assembly to turn back the clock on voting and equal rights. Attendees were encouraged to sign-up to take part in the NC NAACP’s Moral Monday protests, which have taken place at the General Assembly each week for more than two months.
Democracy NC Central Field Organizer Linda Sutton has taken part in several Moral Monday protests. She compared the movement to the March on Washington.
“It’s a good feeling to be with people who are fighting for causes you believe in like that,” said Sutton.
Juneteenth drew attendees from far and wide. Last year, Alabama resident Louretta Hampton was in Winston-Salem visiting her sister-in-law, who suggested they attend the Juneteenth festival. Hampton asked, “What’s a Juneteenth?”
She was dazzled when she discovered the answer. Hampton said she was taken in with the event’s historical displays, especially the one for black-owned Safe Bus Company, which operated in Winston-Salem from 1926 to 1972 and was the largest black-owned transportation company in the world.
Hampton said she has made a vow to attend the local festival every year. She has followed through with that commitment so far. She was back at Saturday’s event, where she stated that she likes that the festival focuses on black history beyond slavery.
“It (is) giving me a sense of my culture,” she said.
Larry Womble, honorary and lifetime chair of the local celebration, welcomed afternoon attendees to the celebration.
“We’re here to have a good time,” he said. “I want you to laugh, I want you to enjoy yourself, be with your great-grands and your family …and your children and get good food.”
The former state representative also gave an update on his slow recovery from a traumatic 2011 car wreck. He said he was doing well and hopes to be recovered enough by the next Juneteenth to do “the slide” across the stage.