CHESTERTOWN — The week-long Juneteenth celebration ended on Saturday, June 19 at Wilmer Park with vendors, speakers and band performances.
This year, Juneteenth was recognized as a federal holiday after President Joe Biden signed legislation on Thursday, June 17.
The Black Union of Kent County organized Chestertown’s Juneteenth celebration, partnering with other organizations to present racial trainings throughout the week, leading up to a block party on Friday, June 18 and the presentation of awards, concerts and speeches on Juneteenth Saturday, June 19.
“We need allies, we need resources, we need assets, we need friends, we need to build our community together. Let’s make sure that’s the theme and that continues to stay the theme,” Chairman of the Black Union John Queen said during the celebration.
The festival kicked off in earnest Friday night with a block party, where Dell Fox Company band was the headliner.
There also were presentations by The Race Thing with Tori and Heena, a media company that focuses on race relations in Talbot County, and Chestertown area native Imani Black of Minorities in Aquaculture, an organization committed to creating a more diverse aquaculture industry by educating minority women.
Rashane Lee and members of his Chestertown-based dance company delighted the large crowd that gathered in Fountain Park.
The threat of rain pushed back the official opening of Saturday’s events in Wilmer Park by about an hour. In his welcome, Chestertown Mayor David Foster thanked the Black Union of Kent County and its chairman, John Queen, for organizing a week’s worth of activities.
“Juneteenth is obviously an important history lesson for all of us, but I hope that it can become much more than a lesson in history,” Foster said. “If the actions taken in Texas on June 19, 1865 represented the end of slavery in the Confederacy, then perhaps the adoption of this holiday right here in Chestertown can mark the beginning of the end of discrimination in our community.”
Foster was quick to clarify that he was not claiming that discrimination had ended, but “expressing the fervent hope that this can be the beginning of the end of that discrimination.”
Ruth Shoge, first vice president of Sumner Hall, spoke Saturday in Wilmer Park about the James Taylor Justice Coalition, a Sumner Hall initiative that publicly recognizes “that our community fell far short of our legal and moral obligations to provide equal justice for all when James Taylor became a victim of racial terrorism,” their website said.
Taylor was lynched in Chestertown in 1892.
In her presentation, Shoge said the coalition was devoted to strengthening social justice in Kent County and across Maryland.
Shoge announced an essay contest for high school-aged students in the public school that will run from September 2021 through February 2022. Essays should look at a historical instance of racial injustice and try to relate those impacts on their lives.
For more information on the essay contest, visit Sumner Hall’s website.
Savannah Shepherd, founder and director of the Delaware Social Justice Remembrance Coalition, spoke about her experiences as a young Black girl growing up wanting to erase her Blackness before the trajectory of her life was changed and she became interested in racial justice.
In establishing the Delaware Social Justice Remembrance Coalition, Shepherd helped erect a historical marker in Delaware to acknowledge the 1903 lynching of George White. Shepherd said there were two ceremonies to unveil the marker because the first marker was stolen and needed to be replaced.
Later Saturday, the inaugural John Queen Community Impact Award was presented to Andrea Kane, former superintendent of Queen Anne’s County Public Schools.
Kane was recognized for her work in looking at racism in Queen Anne’s County schools.
“If there’s racism in our society, it only makes sense that there’s racism in our schools,” Kane said during her acceptance speech.
The first Juneteenth Community Advocate Award was given to former Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino.
In his acceptance speech, Cerino said that it was important to keep “the dialogue going” so issues can be addressed and people can continue to learn.
Del. Andrea Harrison, D-24-Prince George’s County, talked about the importance of Juneteenth as a holiday and to celebrate and remember the history. Harrison sponsored House Bill 448 on Jan. 15 to make Juneteenth a paid employee holiday in the state of Maryland.
The bill was not voted on in the 2021 session and will be reintroduced next session, Harrison said.
The Juneteenth celebration ended with a performance by Karen Somerville. She sang covers by famous artists like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, and performed original songs with Lester Barrett Jr. and Jerome McKinney.
At Monday night’s regularly scheduled council meeting, during the mayor’s report, Foster described the Juneteenth celebration as “outstanding.”
He thanked Queen and the Black Union of Kent County for putting the program together.
Council members Tom Herz and Meghan Efland also gave shout-outs to Queen, and thanked Tom and Cindy Fulton and Karen Somerville for their sponsorship of the historic signage that was unveiled near the Port of Chestertown Marina.