July 15, 2012

Juneteenth brings community together

2nd-annual Juneteenth festival marks freeing of slaves

BY ALVIN REINER, Press-Republican

---- — LAKE PLACID — The morning’s drumbeats resonated across the farmland and through the nearby woods as the 2nd-annual Juneteenth celebration commenced with an impromptu drumming session at John Brown Farm.

“Although John Brown did not live to see the slaves free, we are celebrating the fruits of his sacrifice,” said Brendan Mills, site manager of the John Brown Farm State Historic Site. “This is what John Brown worked for, and just like Moses, he never made it to the Promised Land.” 

Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States, according to the celebration’s website. On June 19, 1865, the Union soldiers, led by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that the war had ended and the enslaved were now free. The celebration of June 19 was coined “Juneteenth” and grew with more participation from descendants. The Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members. It is celebrated at sites across the nation each year.

Johnna MacDougall, the main force behind the recent celebration in Lake Placid, was a whirlwind of activity as she encouraged the audience to join in as drummers, dancers and singers. MacDougall, who is also a dance instructor, founded Soma Beats and the African Dance Club in 2006. Members come from Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Keene. 

“We have come together as a community to celebrate the freedom that John Brown brought to the slaves,” MacDougall said. “This event is to keep the spirit of freedom alive through drumming and dancing and learning about West African rituals. We will keep this growing year after year.” 

“A lot of us from the South did not know where John Brown was from,” Dexter Criss of Plattsburgh State’s Gospel Choir explained. “Gospel is an interactive genre to celebrate with and to get into it. Slaves used drums to communicate and to let the other slaves know they were not alone.” 

As soon as the choir started, the audience joined in with clapping, drumming and singing.

“Every day is your birthday,” MacDougall said in a prelude to the dancing. “John Brown knew he had to set the slaves free, and we are thankful. We are ordinary people, but our love for African dance has brought us together. I hope you are able to feel the spirit and to build a stronger community spirit. 

“Sometimes in our lives, we don’t work together, but instead of fighting, we dance.”

The Gum Boot dance depicted the struggles in the South African mines, in which the laborers used their boots to make music, as they were forbidden to drum. In reality, it was a dance to mock those who tried to control them. 

A Haitian dance expressed “how you choose to end your day,” MacDougall said. “Every one of you can have faith and be committed to be alive.”

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