Athens Celebrates First Juneteenth As A National Holiday

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — People in Athens gathered Saturday to celebrate Juneteenth, marking the day that enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, were emancipated over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Juneteenth celebrations have grown in the past year, said Dr. Tee Ford-Ahmed, an organizer of the free little library unveiling at Mt. Zion Baptist Church and the communications coordinator for Mt. Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society. She has never attended a public Juneteenth gathering like the celebrations that happened this year.

“I have never, outside of my small community of Black and indigenous people, celebrated Juneteenth,” Ford-Ahmed said. “It’s usually done with supper or very family oriented. But now to have it move past family to embrace extended family, to embrace community family, to embrace so many people. It’s the best.”

President Joe Biden declared Juneteenth a national holiday on Thursday, though the celebrations in Athens were planned long before.

A little library was unveiled outside the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Athens as part of the Juneteenth celebrations on Saturday.
A free little library was unveiled outside the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Athens as part of the Juneteenth celebrations on Saturday. [Taylor Burnette | WOUB]
Ohio University held its first Juneteenth celebration with a festival in the late afternoon after people gathered at Mt. Zion Baptist Church for the unveiling of a free little library exclusively featuring work authored by Black Indegenous People of Color.

The free little library was gifted by the Athens Anti-Racist Action Group, and the event was put on in conjunction with the Mt. Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society, which is working toward the preservation of the historic Black church in Athens while creating a cultural space. 

Ada Woodson Adams, the president of Mt. Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society, and Steve Patterson, the mayor of Athens, placed the first two books in the library. Patterson placed a copy of “Anti-Racist Baby” by Ibram X. Kendi, and Adams placed a copy of “The Other Side,” by Jacqueline Woodson. The library is free to anyone who wants a book, and there are selections for adults, teenagers and children. 

Adams said she believes the library can have a big influence on Athens.

“Being Black in America is an emotional roller coaster ride everyday,” Adams said. “People who are going to pick up these books from the library are going to hear those stories. … When you have books like this, talking about how people of different ethnic groups can come together and find a commonality, that’s what this library will bring to Athens and Athens County.”

The event also featured a bookmark-making craft for the children and pawpaw popsicles for everybody in attendance.

Adams said she thinks the designation of Juneteenth as a national holiday is a step in the right direction. 

“I think it’s a wonderful step in the right direction to honor those of us who had been enslaved and now free, and for the United States of America to recognize that this is a momentous time in American history, not just in Black history, but also in American history,” Adams said. “It’s saying that we are learning to correct some injustices done in the past.”

Across town on the south side of the Ohio University Athens campus, people gathered at the Juneteenth festival for food, fun and remembrance. Students, faculty, staff and Athens residents danced together, laughed together and ate together while they celebrated the day.

There were games and activities for the children as well as adults, and the event also featured free food.

Although the day was full of celebrations, many had hopes that it would serve as a step toward recognition of the issues Black Americans face today, as well as a step toward fixing them.

“We’ve had so many steps that have moved us forward to becoming one nation, one people,” Ford-Ahmed said. “Then there’s backslide, as they say in religious communities. And then you move a little bit forward, and then there’s another backslide. … So I’m hoping that we won’t keep backsliding. And that is something at some point people will kind of get it, that we’re all just one people on this Earth.”