The joy at J.F. Gregory Park was palpable Saturday as a diverse crowd of hundreds gathered under the pavilion for Richmond Hill’s first official Juneteenth celebration, days after the U.S. Congress passed a law making it into a national holiday.
“This is an unbelievable turnout for a city of Richmond Hill’s size,” said longtime state Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway. “It speaks really well of the leadership of the Bryan County NAACP. They did a great job.”
If Williams, a longtime civil rights champion who has family roots in Bryan County, seemed elated by the turnout, he wasn’t the only one.
The Rev. Hubert Quiller of Restoration Worship Center, a retired Army first sergeant, and Bryan County High School JROTC instructor and retired Sgt. First Class Lorenza Ross were among those who attended the celebration of Juneteenth, which has long been celebrated by African Americans because June 19, 1865 was in which the last slaves learned they were free, some 2-1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
The word “Juneteenth” is a combination of June and Nineteenth, and has been celebrated in some states for decades. In Texas, the day was first proclaimed a holiday in 1939, and over the years other states have recognized Juneteenth as an official day to focus on African American freedom and culture.
“It’s important we’ve finally recognized it as a national holiday,” Quiller said, adding he was overjoyed by the speed with which Congress worked to pass legislation making it a holiday. “We need to keep it going, teach it to our children and keep it going here and all over the country.”
Ross called the turnout at J.F. Gregory “awesome,” because of its diversity.
“That’s important to continue moving forward,” he said. “Raising awareness is what this is about.”
Saturday’s celebration officially ran from noon to 4 p.m., and by mid afternoon a number of speakers had taken turns extolling those in attendance to remember the past and look to the future. Joined by his fellow Richmond Hill city councilman Steve Scholar, Robbie Ward, a native in a city where most come from somewhere else, read a proclamation recognizing Juneteenth on behalf of Mayor Russ Carpenter, who was unable to attend due to his father’s illness.
That proclamation, signed by Carpenter, read, in part, “whereas we understand this moment to be one where we must invest in, support and respect the sanctity of all lives,” and, later, “the city of Richmond Hill is proud to honor the history and contribution of African Americans in our community, throughout our state, and nation,” before ending with a plea to residents to “become more aware of the significance of this celebration in African- American history and to continue efforts to create a world that is more just, peaceful and prosperous for all.”
Also speaking at Saturday’s celebration was longtime educator and ordained minister, Dr. Karen Boles Grant. Her family roots in Bryan County date back to the early 1800s and her ancestral home was on land seized in 2004 by the city of Richmond Hill through eminent domain, she said.
Promises were made to create a park on that land honoring in particular two of Boles Grant’s relatives, her grandfather, the Rev.
David Boles, and her brother, Sgt. Harry Lee Boles, who was killed in action in Vietnam.
Boles Grant said it took Carpenter to finally begin fulfilling the city’s promises to her family, and the city broke ground on phase one of Boles Park in September. But she added COVID-19 had put a dent in the city’s SPLOST collections through which park improvements are being funded, and her family is now looking to raise funds to complete the park.
There were others to speak Saturday at the event, which was organized by the Bryan County NAACP’s Youth Committee, chaired by Adrienne Jackson.
Among those to speak before a break roughly halfway through were Richmond Hill’s Marcus Thompson, a Democratic candidate last year for both the Georgia state legislature and Richmond Hill City Council; Democratic Committee Chairwoman Teresa Timmons, a Richmond Hill Real Estate Agent’; Richmond Hill sociologist Dr. Bertice Berry, and Dr. Samose Mays, recreation director in Bryan County.