Historic militia and artisan demonstrations will be part of the Juneteenth event in Washington Square.

For the second year, the Rhode Island Slave History Medallions Project will utilize historic Washington Square to call attention to the newest federal holiday, known as Juneteenth. While the holiday’s focus is on the dissolution of slavery, local groups are emphasizing history beyond the Emancipation Proclamation.

The free celebration on June 15 will run from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will feature storytellers, indigenous arts and cultural performances, African drumming, live music, dancing and youth activities.

Organized primarily by Charles Roberts of the Rhode Island Slave History Medallions Project, the event will include a Newport Black history walking tour, historic militia and artisan demonstrations and food trucks.

In addition, the Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project will present a concert featuring retired Newport police officer Jimmy Winters in Liberty Park at 1 p.m.

“The emphasis of our Juneteenth event is on expressing the cultural history and contribution of African Americans and Indigenous people,” Roberts said. “But we’re having a variety of groups involved, including colonial militia and others. Our intent is to showcase this as a cultural expression and a statement of unity: We are one nation, one people, in a democratic society.”

Juneteenth has also been referred to as a time of reflection about the meaning of freedom and to celebrate the end of slavery. Juneteenth originally referred to the day when enslaved African Americans in Texas became the first to win their freedom. It is a combination of the month and day, June 19, when federal troops arrived in Texas and notified the enslaved people that they were free. It then spread state by state until the end of the Civil War.

The history is more complicated than a simple declaration. When President Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, it applied only to people enslaved in the rebelling Confederate states. Some border states that remained loyal to the Union still maintained slavery. This history is part of the Juneteenth observance around the country. Prior to formation of the federal holiday, people celebrated Emancipation Day on different dates in various parts of the country.

“I didn’t really know anything about Juneteenth until it was declared here in Rhode Island,” said Victoria Johnson, the first woman of color to serve as a school principal in Rhode Island.

A Newport native, she was the former principal of Rogers High School. She is one of the principal organizers of Newport’s Middle Passage Port Marker Project dedicated to erecting a memorial in the city.

Newport Middle Passage Port Marker
The Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project will present a concert featuring retired Newport police officer Jimmy Winters in Liberty Park at 1 p.m.

“We celebrated Emancipation Day on Aug. 1 when I was growing up,” Johnson said. “It was supposedly the date when news of passage of the proclamation reached Rhode Island.”

Lincoln issued the proclamation in 1863, primarily as a military strategy to attract African Americans to join the Union army. Making slavery illegal throughout the country didn’t happen until the 13th Amendment was passed on Jan. 31, 1865. While most Americans learned in school about the ending of slavery, particular details, including Juneteenth and Emancipation Day celebrations among African Americans, have been largely unknown outside the Black community.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institute has referred to Juneteenth as the country’s second Independence Day.

“The post-emancipation period known as Reconstruction marked an era of great hope, uncertainty and struggle for the nation as a whole,” the museum writes on its website. “Formerly enslaved people immediately sought to reunify families, establish schools, run for political office, push radical legislation and even sue slaveholders for compensation.”

The importance of spreading knowledge of the full history of African Americans is not lost on Johnson.

“I never knew African American history until after I finished college,” she said. “In a sense, it was taken away from us. Learning about all the details of our history has been a lifelong journey. It was during the Civil Rights Era that we started to learn. Some people in our church used to talk about it, but it was not taught in public schools. I learned more and more as I went.”

Her journey continues with the Port Marker project, which proposes a memorial on the grounds of Liberty Park off Washington Square.

“It is all about teaching the history,” she said. “We’ve been raising funds, holding lectures and other events. We’re hoping for City Council approval. We’ve become a partner of the park. We hired an arborist to help us take care of the Liberty Tree in the park. We want to be there. The site says what kind of community we are.”

For Roberts, Juneteenth also helps focus attention on projects like the Port Marker and Slave History Medallions. Sixteen carved stone medallions set in bronze on granite pedestals have been installed in several communities, marking locations involved in slavery and where formerly enslaved people lived or worked. Medallions have been placed at Smith’s Castle and Casey Farm in North Kingstown, Trinity Church, the Ezra Stiles House and other sites in Newport, as well as locations in Providence, Bristol and Barrington.

“Our goal is to have 25 installed by 2026,” Roberts said. “We want to have at least one in every city and town that contributed to slavery. It is an act of remembrance. I first appreciated the power of this when I was younger and I saw the monument to soldiers of the First Rhode Island Regiment, known as the Black Regiment, installed at Patriots Park in Portsmouth. To see the names carved on stone really brings the stories of these people back to us.”

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