DOVER — Syl Woolford, a history and genealogy lecturer, got Dover High School’s Black Communities on Campus club’s Juneteenth Freedom Day Festival underway on Monday with a brief history of the holiday.
Mr. Woolford finished his remarks by saying, “If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were still alive today, he would surely be proclaiming, ‘Free at last, Free at last, Thank God almighty that we are free at last.’”
Juneteenth is all about freedom.
It was first recognized as a federal holiday June 17, 2021, when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law.
It marks the anniversary of the June 19, 1865, announcement of General Order No. 3 by Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger, which proclaimed freedom for enslaved people in Texas, the last state of the Confederacy with institutional slavery.
U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., spoke at the event at Dover High School, which was also attended by Dr. Reba Hollingsworth and Dover city councilmen Andre Boggerty and David Anderson.
Hanifah Ouro-Sama, president of the Dover High School Black Communities on Campus club, and other members of the group, scrambled to organize the Freedom Festival, with adviser Gabi LaSalle missing school for the past month due to maternity leave.
At the club’s weekly meetings, members hold discussions on a wide range of topics pertaining to Black life, including generational divides in the community, the roots of Black stereotypes, the misuse of African American vernacular English and more.
Ms. LaSalle was very impressed by how the students organized a festival while she was busy delivering a baby.
“I’m super excited,” she said. “This is like the day that I’ve been stressed out about for a month and just hoping everything was going to come together because it’s been hard to finish the planning with me not being here. So, I’ve been really self-reliant on the kids to do most of it.
“Thankfully, my kids like Hanifah (Ouro-Sama) and Jordan (Demby), they’re really, really good at being self-sufficient for the most part. They don’t really need much direction from me. I can say, ‘Hey, this needs to be done,’ and they just go and do it.”
More than 30 Black-owned businesses were represented at the first Freedom Day Festival, including vendors and food trucks. There was also a bouncy castle and games for children.
Later in the afternoon, current and former Dover High students played jazz music, danced and performed spoken-word poetry.
Rep. Rochester was impressed at the event the students organized.
“What is Juneteenth? It’s about freedom,” Rep. Rochester said. “This morning I heard a definition about freedom that I loved. It was ‘The ability to move through the world without fear.’”
“This is really special to Hanifah (Ouro-Sama) and to the leadership of the BCC to have young people leading us. I’m here today because they called – and they asked. I want to salute them and thank them for the invitation.”
Rep. Rochester compared Juneteenth to “a lemonade moment,” which is both bitter and sweet.
“A lot of us don’t even recognize or understand what this holiday is about or why it even exists and for many of us, we’ve been celebrating even before it was a national holiday,” she said. “When I think about this day, I think about three things. I think about celebrate, educate and elevate.”
Hanifah was pleased with the work of her classmates and how Freedom Fest came together, even after it had to move at the last moment from Legislative Mall to Dover High due to a permitting issue.
“I can’t even put this into words,” the DHS senior said. “It’s the culmination of (several) weeks’ worth of work. It’s so meaningful to me, especially because I’m a senior.
“This is (the biggest memory) what I take away from my experience as BCC president, so I can’t even describe it. It’s just so great to be here.”
She said she completely understood Rep. Rochester’s description of Juneteenth as a bittersweet event.
“Juneteenth is, in many ways, a bittersweet reminder of this history and the lives lost to decades of enslavement,” Hanifah said. “Celebrating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans inadvertently forces us to acknowledge the years of enslavement they faced prior and this country’s role in creating the systemic inequities faced by their descendants.”
Looking out at Monday’s Freedom Day Festival, Ms. LaSalle said she can envision it becoming an annual event at Dover High.
“Juneteenth is very important,” she said. “This is a day that a lot of our kids didn’t even have any awareness about up until a couple of years ago. Now that they know about it, they’ve very much submersed themselves into it.
“One thing that DHSBCC is about is immersing yourself in Black culture, bringing light to more Black history and then trying to figure out how we can implement that into the curriculum in public schools. It’s a very big deal.
“I feel like after having this here now and seeing how well everything is organized and how it looks, we’ll probably continue to have it here.”