Singer-songwriter and Black rights activist Gaye Adegbalola (right) was one of the many activists who attended Fredericksburg's Juneteenth celebration in Market Square. (Photo by Jamar Billingsley)

A freeing feeling: Fredericksburg celebrates Juneteenth

by | Jun 20, 2024 | ALLFFP, Events, Fredericksburg

The Fredericksburg Juneteenth festival kicked off Wednesday afternoon with music, poems, and reenactment performances celebrating Black heritage. Festivities ran from noon to 6 p.m. in Market Square, allowing ample opportunity to enjoy the Freedom Day celebration and tour the Fredericksburg Area Museum.

Eunice Haigler, a 73-year-old Civil Rights activist and resident of Fredericksburg, has been coordinating the annual event since 2015. Despite the heat, Tuesday’s iteration drew a diverse crowd to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation that freed enslaved African Americans.

On June 19, 1865, almost two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Union soldiers reached Galveston Bay, Texas, bringing the news of liberation. Over 250,000 African Americans celebrated their newfound freedom on this day, which became known as Juneteenth or Freedom Day.

Guest speaker Jesse Johnson gave an intriguing speech on libation rituals tracing history back to ancient Egypt. “It’s a time to celebrate everyone being freed, but more work needs to be done. I believe in honoring my ancestors; if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here today,” Johnson said.

Cleopatra “Cleo” Kay Coleman, a Black rights activist and historian in her mid-90s, offered a breathtaking portrayal of African American icon Harriet Tubman. She educated the audience about Tubman’s legacy while standing in a white gown and scarf and carrying a walking cane and Bible.

Cleo Coleman donned full attire depicting famed emancipator Harriet Tubman. (Photo by Jamar Billingsley)

Coleman, a former Spotsylvania County NAACP person of the year who helped to restore a historic one-room schoolhouse for Black children in her hometown of Port Royal, has been part of the event since its inception in 2015.

“I am delighted the federal government made Juneteenth a holiday, and I truly have a passion for African American history,” she said.

Market Square in downtown Fredericksburg has entry points from both Princess Anne and Caroline Streets. More than 200 people attended Tuesday’s event during the six-hour time frame, organizers said.

Other notable attendees included Fredericksburg Mayor Kerry Devine, former Mayor Mary Greenlaw, Sen. Tim Kaine, Superintendent of Fredericksburg City Schools Dr. Marceline Catlett, and singer and activist Gaye Adegbalola.

In previous years, Haigler hosted the Juneteenth Freedom Day celebrations at New City Fellowship Church. “I never had a budget for the event. I can recall New City Fellowship hosting the event for free and providing food to feed the homeless,” she said.

Friends and family members of Haigler donated money this year for a sound system and to keep her yearly tradition of passing out the David Q. Haigler award. The award is bestowed in honor of her late son.

Haigler said that while she enjoyed all the speakers and performers who participated in Tuesday’s celebration, there’s “a special place in my heart for volunteer Master of Ceremony Maik Johnson, who controlled the event agenda perfectly.”

“A lot of people don’t know their Virginia politicians,” she added. “It was extra special for Senator Tim Kaine to come out and commemorate Juneteenth. It was truly a unified educational event amongst the community.”

Haigler said she’s very grateful, both for her supporters and to FAM for seeing her vision through for this year’s Juneteenth celebration. The museum is normally closed on Wednesdays but remained open in support of Haigler and the newly established federal holiday. “

As a history museum, it’s very important to remember the enslaved people who were freed. “We are happy to partner with community groups and leaders like Ms. Eunice,” said FAM Education and Public Program Manager Theresa Cramer.

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