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Commemorating history

Annual Juneteenth festival celebrates liberation, educates about struggles of slavery.

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Sunday, Jun. 14, 2009

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Four years ago, Nduta Mwangi, 39, lived in a small tenement apartment in Kenya, where she and her sisters sewed traditional African dresses for a living.

Saturday, she brought those dresses to Macon and put them on sale at the annual Juneteenth Freedom Festival at Tattnall Square Park.

“These dresses represent who I am and who we as African-Americans are. It’s our living symbolic legacy,” she said.

The festival was a daylong celebration of Juneteenth, the holiday which commemorates the liberation of slaves in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865.

“It’s sort of like an African-American Independence Day,” said Michelle Fitz, a festival organizer.

But Fitz said that Juneteenth isn’t just for African-Americans.

“It’s a way to educate people of all races about the struggles of slavery. So many people have no idea or they forget what our people went through,” she said.

The festival featured live jazz music, arts and crafts vendors and educational presentations.

Festival director George Muhammad said he expected as many as 1,000 people to attend the festival by the end of the day.

Baatin Muhammad, a member of the Middle Georgia Jazz Allstar Band, said the festival is one of the band’s best opportunities to play yet.

“We’re really excited to play at this event in particular because of what it means to us. It means freedom. It means liberty. It means everything jazz music is supposed to be about,” he said.

One of the festival highlights was a Civil War era re-enactment that demonstrated the black freedom struggle.

Clifford Price, who’s been putting on the re-enactment in his spare time for the past 22 years, said his lifelong mission is to teach people to appreciate the hardships faced by black Union soldiers.

“We want to teach people what our ancestors did during the Civil War, about how they gave up their lives for that elusive word called freedom,” Price said.

James Simpson, a 49-year-old from Macon, has been bringing his wife and five kids to the festival for as long as he can remember.

“We come every year with lawn chairs and a cooler of sodas and stay all day. It’s not only fun, but it’s a great way to teach my kids something,” he said.

Simpson said he was particularly impressed with the variety of merchandise being sold at this year’s festival.

“I just got me a brand new yard hat,” he said.

Ankur Patel, a junior at Mercer University, said he heard the music from the festival as he was walking down College Street and decided to see what the event was all about.

“It’s pretty amazing to hear all this history. Even though I’m not black, I can appreciate it. It’s important that we all support events like this that teach people history and will change the way they look at things today,” he said.