Ask anyone what freedom means and you are almost certain to get numerous answers. Among them, “not being enslaved or incarcerated, the ability to make choices without fear of punishment or reprisal and the ability to move about at will.”
While definitions range from the personal to the political, the more the concept of freedom is discussed and debated, its importance remains clear. In the United States, it has been written into founding documents and celebrated. Many have yearned for it. Marginalized communities have repeatedly been denied its full realization. Some have fought and died for it.
Each year in June, the idea of freedom shines, however, as we celebrate two monumental moments in American history with Pride and Juneteenth events. While the two honor different fights for freedom, they both share a common purpose of cultural visibility and equality.
The Stonewall Uprising on June 28, 1969 gave rise to the country’s LGBTQ rights movement, and early Pride festivals, like that in San Francisco, used the moniker “Gay Freedom Day” throughout the 1970s. InterPride, the international association of Pride festivals and organizations, currently has more than 400 members in over 70 countries — each honoring that history and the continued fight for freedom in the LGBTQ community.
Another American freedom celebration honors a moment in our history that ended centuries of oppression. In this case, it is the freedom of Black folks that we recognize. Prior to President Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, it was still legal for many states to own or enslave Black people. However, not all enslaved Black Americans immediately learned of the Proclamation.
They remained in bondage and subjected to the cruelty of slave owners that regarded them as property and saw them as less than human. It took almost two and a half years for word to reach the last of the enslaved in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, when Gen. Gordon Granger, a Union general, arrived to share the news of the Emancipation Proclamation. On that day, freedom and the promised opportunities that came with it were brought into focus for those formerly enslaved people for the first time.
Today, Juneteenth [“June” plus “nineteenth”], also known as Jubilee Day, Liberation Day and Emancipation Day, is a holiday celebrated and recognized in 49 states. South Dakota is the only exception, and there is growing momentum to change that.
On Tuesday June 15, 2021 the United States senate unanimously passed a resolution establishing “Juneteenth National Independence Day” a U.S. holiday. Having been celebrated for literally hundreds of years, typically, celebrations range from small family gatherings with food, music and rituals of thankfulness to larger weekend, and in some cases, week-long celebrations that often culminate in festivals and parades. Large and small, many Juneteenth events keep concepts of freedom, cultural pride, education and economic mobility at their core.
In Charlotte, the Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas is just one such organization celebrating the historic day. A nonprofit functioning under the umbrella of The House of Africa, an African gift shop located in the heart of Plaza Midwood, the Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas hosts an annual weekend celebration June 17 through June 20. This year marks its 24th year and founder and chairman Pape S. Ndiaye says he is “very, very proud that the Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas gave birth to so many Juneteenth (celebrations) around Charlotte and surrounding areas.”
In a candid discussion with qnotes, Ndiaye discussed what this year’s festival would look like and how it fits into a grander vision of freedom for the local Black community. After growing in size and popularity, the festival was held at Independence Park for 10 years. It has since returned to its home at The House of Africa, where it was scaled down last year to a procession of decorated vehicles due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Increased vaccinations and scaled-back restrictions means that many are looking forward to this year’s celebration even more. The event promises to be as grand as it was in years past and will continue to expand beyond Ndiaye’s shop to the surrounding grounds and streets. It will host entertainers, dancing, singing, speeches and vendors with a variety of local art, jewelry, wears and information from local and regional businesses.
The annual anticipation of festival attendees also fuels the wheels of Black economic mobility in Charlotte. While celebrating freedom, the festival highlights Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs and fosters an idea of cooperative economics. Still, no one is priced out of participating. Many of the activities are free to the public. The four-day event kicks off Thursday with an all-day Arts & Crafts Youth Day Camp followed by the famed Open “Community” Drum Circle on Friday evening, which welcomes all walks of life and levels of ability. The festival then takes place Saturday and Sunday and is free to attend. New this year is the addition of a Freedom March for Unity and Togetherness. The peaceful march will begin at the Grady Cole Center and conclude at the festival location at the intersection of Central and Thomas Avenue. Everyone is welcome to join the march.
In reflecting upon the history, journey and relevance of Juneteenth, Ndiaye, a native of Senegal, West Africa, beams with pride and encourages people to reach out to him to volunteer and assist with the festival. “We’re using it as a tool to educate, about the rich culture of Africa and the powerful heritage,” says Ndiaye, “My grandmother used to say, ‘when you travel you need to get a direction.’ Culture and heritage are the only direction that help you move forward. Knowing that your ancestors built this world, healed the sick and taught the uneducated – You should be proud of who you are in the sea of life.”
For the Black LGBTQ community, that history has often included discrimination from multiple angles. Being ostracized sometimes by the Black community itself in the name of religion, added to the discrimination that still exists within parts of the LGBTQ community, make the experiences of Black LGBTQ people a complicated story. Cornerstones that uniquely shaped the region have also had unique implications for LGBTQ people. Just look at the history of Charlotte Black Pride, which celebrates its 16th year with multiple events starting on July 11. “There is an intrinsic link between Juneteenth and the establishment of Charlotte Black Pride,” says founder Jermaine Nakia Lee. While the organization has found a new and productive partnership with Charlotte Pride, it grew out of an earlier frustration. “For two years, my co-founders and I lobbied and petitioned the then leadership of Charlotte Pride to be more inclusive of African American and Latinx queer folk in their programming.”
Members suggested local, regional and national talent and offered to coordinate programs for free. “With the same uncertainty that my ancestors likely had when considering where they will live, how they would feed themselves, how they would survive without the meager rations of the plantation, Charlotte Black Pride was established in 2005 to present and celebrate Black LGBTQ+ culture in Charlotte – and powered by the tenacity of our ancestors,” says Lee.
A Shared Vision of Freedom
As members of the Black LGBTQ community finds ways to celebrate their queerness and Black culture, Juneteenth holds an opportunity to connect the two — one that an organization in Dallas, Texas took a step toward in 2019. The Dallas nonprofit, Abounding Prosperity, Inc., which started as a Juneteenth pool party and provides health and social services to Black residents, organized the Juneteenth Unity Festival. According to the Dallas Southern Pride’s website, the weekend celebrates “the brilliance of who and what we are as Same-Gender-Loving People of Color.”
Shamar Garcon Dupree told KERA News that it makes sense for the Black LGBTQ community to celebrate both Juneteenth and Pride. “There’s Cedar Springs, primarily like the ‘gayborhood’ of Dallas, and a lot of the African American LGBTQ members here in Dallas just really don’t feel comfortable down there,” he said, “There’s been stories of possible discrimination and mistreatment in the area.”
Dallas’ LGBTQ community is also changing from gentrification, something that Dupree says is pushing the Black LGBTQ community out. Like Charlotte, areas closest to the city’s downtown have experienced massive development and transformation that have left a lack of affordability and caused increased disparities. The Williams Institute found that across the U.S., Black LGBTQ adults are more likely to experience economic insecurity than Black non-LGBTQ adults.
In Charlotte, people are working to address the economic mobility of Black communities in the city. But, how are these projects impacting the city’s Black LGBTQ residents, and where can the intersections of these two important freedom festivals connect?
While not a member of the LGBTQ community, Christopher Dennis is excited to be an active part of positive change for Charlotte’s Historic West End corridor. His first commercial development project, under the company, E-Fix Development Corp., is renovating and bringing hope to an area where just last year Juneteenth was marred by a shooting incident that claimed the lives of people aiming to celebrate the holiday.
“People were quick to tell me what I couldn’t do,” said Dennis, “That’s the economic mobility piece that we miss, that we’re always being defined by a box, based on a narrative that we didn’t create.” Honoring freedom as part of Juneteenth celebrations is tied to his plans for economic mobility in the area.
While affirming that the “community is strong because of the people who live, work and invest there,” Dennis says, “as agents of change, we are excited to work with partners in re-imagining the West End Corridor as we create the vision and blueprint for the future.” Assisting him in the project is real estate broker and PR rep Michelle Mattison and commercial broker and project adviser Rodney Faulkner. They’re both important parts of a team Dennis is very proud of. “Economic mobility is not something that you can do on your own, it’s important to have the right team,” he says. “We need to build the right teams within our communities — strategic collaboration, that’s the challenge.” Apparently, it’s a challenge he’s been able to overcome, because plans for the corridor are underway with a future that can already be seen taking shape.
Dennis continued to speak about how development and entrepreneurship can have a positive impact on underserved communities. “When I saw someone who looked like me, willing to invest and make change, that made an impact on me,” he says referring to the owner of the McDonald’s Cafeteria that opened in the early 1970s on Beatties Ford Rd. and served community members for over 30 years.
“That’s why we decided to put electronic charging stations on the site, I want some young boy or girl to look at them and say ‘mommy what is that?’” because when they ask that question, we’ve propelled them into the future because Beatties Ford Rd. deserves to have things that other communities have.” With that in mind, the sites will also include a bank, eateries and a number of small businesses. The renovated sites are being designed to incorporate arts, culture and a diverse work staff of contractors and artists, all things Dennis believes are in the spirit of Juneteenth as they highlight excellence in a manner that he hopes will further empower the community.
“It has always been my hope that the intersection of Beatties Ford and LaSalle represent the West End in the same way Kenilworth and East Blvd. represent Dilworth,” says Faulkner, “After completing the projects, there will be places that will be beautiful, fun and safe. The neighborhood will have a physical symbol of what hope, imagination, hard work, care and teamwork looks like.”
When Mattison was asked why the project is such a big deal she simply said, “Because representation matters.” That’s something that the LGBTQ community understands as well.
In the coming months, qnotes will investigate how a variety of projects are seeking solutions for economic mobility of Black LGBTQ communities. That involves finding ways where people and events like Pride and Juneteenth might find a common purpose in diversity, equity and inclusion for all.
Those questions are not yet evident, but as part of this series we hope to create more space for conversation and uncover solutions that might increase opportunities for our Black LGBTQ community in Charlotte as well.
Schedule of Juneteenth Events in Charlotte
Youth Day Camp
Thursday, June 17, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. @ Elizabeth Park
$10 registration fee
Opening Ceremony and Open Drum Circle
Friday, June 18, 5 p.m.–9 p.m. @ The House of Africa
Juneteenth Freedom March
Saturday, June 19, line up at 9 a.m. @ Grady Cole Center (marches to festival site)
Saturday, June 19, 12 p.m.-9 p.m.
Includes History of Juneteenth presentation
Prayer and Religious Service
Sunday, June 20, 10 a.m. @ The House of Africa
Sunday, June 20, 12 p.m.–8 p.m.
Includes History of Juneteenth presentation
At the age of 18, he moved to Charlotte to fulfill his dream of becoming a dancer. Well on his way, Eric, now 20 years old, lives in a center city apartment and is a member of the Charlotte Ballet II Academy.