NEW ALBANY — Unity and hope were the central themes of a recent celebration as community members reflected upon the country's history of slavery and abolition, including the role of New Albany in the Underground Railroad.
The Second Baptist Church presented its annual Juneteenth celebration Saturday at the downtown New Albany church. The congregation honored the observation with prayer, music, a church tour and a historical re-enactment.
Juneteenth is a holiday recognizing emancipation from slavery. It began following the official announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas, which came more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Abolition was delayed in Texas, and Union troops brought the news of freedom to enslaved African Americans on June 19.
This year, the theme of the church's Juneteenth event was the "Unseen Man" to discuss how slavery separated men from their families. On Sunday, the congregation presented a dinner to celebrate men in the community — the men ate for free, but women were encouraged to give a donation.
The Second Baptist Church, also known as the Town Clock Church, has been celebrating Juneteenth for the past three years. Last year, the congregation presented a "freedom walk" from the church to Bicentennial Park.
Brian West, a teaching artist at the Frazier History Museum, performed a re-enactment as African writer Olaudah Equiano, who wrote an autobiography about his experiences in slavery. The church also focused on the church's Underground Railroad history with a tour of the building, including the basement where escaped slaves would pass through on their journey to freedom.
Second Baptist Church trustee Chancea Roberts gave the tour of the church. Members of the Second Presbyterian Church, the congregation formerly located at the building, would offer the escaped slaves food, medical care and supplies, and they would use a tunnel in the church to move to their next destination.
Roberts said Juneteenth is an opportunity to share the meaning of Juneteenth with both children and adults, including understanding of what the Emancipation Proclamation really meant for enslaved people.
"I would like individuals to understand that freedom came with a cost ... It was two years later [after the Emancipation Proclamation] that those slaves were actually released and were able to leave the plantations and go on their own," he said. "But then after that, there came the sharecropping situation where they were unable to actually leave."
The Rev. LeRoy Marshall Jr., pastor at Second Baptist Church, said Saturday's event was focused on bringing unity to families and community members, as well as inspiring young people.
"Just think about over the course of the year that brotherhood is the only hood we should be living in," he said at Saturday's ceremony. "It's brotherhood, and from today, we are brothers and sisters, and from the next day."
New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan, who also spoke at the event, emphasized community values of kindness, respect and love.
"On this day, we celebrate not only the end of slavery in America, but we celebrate how far our nation has come," he said. "We still have ways to go, but we are making progress. The spirit of Juneteenth is about respect and appreciation for all cultural differences. Let this day serve as a reminder that New Albany is a community of openness, inclusiveness, and, most of all, kindness."
Marshall's wife, the Rev. Joyce Marshall, was the main organizer for the Juneteenth event. She said she wants to send a message of hope to the community and to encourage them never to give up. She stressed the value of educating people on the history of slavery, and she said the church's Underground Railroad history shows the importance of community coming together to help each other.
"It's really good for me for the young people to better understand our heritage — where we came from and what we stand for and who we are — and to let the community know the significance of Juneteenth and what it really means," she said.
The event focused on how slavery interrupted the lives of black families. She said since many black males in slavery would never see their families again after they were separated at a young age, they became "invisible," she said.
"He became invisible, and he was never given the opportunity to be the man," she said. "Since that opportunity was never given to him, the black family has suffered, because he has become invisible in their family along life's journey. But today, he's no longer invisible."