Juneteenth 2021: Some metro cities leave behind racist past to mark the holiday for first time

At least eight metro Atlanta cities will be holding their first public celebration of the Juneteenth holiday this weekend, including three that have particularly well-known connections to racism or its symbols.

Juneteenth, which falls on June 19 and is also known as Freedom Day, is a celebration of the emancipation of Black slaves in the U.S.

While the Black community has celebrated the date since the 1800s, the observance has soared in popularity following last summer’s protests and global outcry for racial reckoning in the wake of George Floyd.

“I think Juneteenth recognition is going to be a lot more prevalent this year than it may have been in the past,” said Deana Bonner, former president of the Cobb County NAACP. “Because after Black Lives Matter and the pandemic, we are really now realizing that there needs to be a change. Juneteenth should be a celebration that we are encouraging very strongly.”

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Three cities in DeKalb and Cobb counties have a history rooted in racism, making their efforts to honor Juneteenth for the first time this year especially notable.

In DeKalb County, Stone Mountain was the scene of the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915, and a famous arrest and “chain gang” sentencing of Martin Luther King Jr. in Decatur in 1960. A year ago on Juneteenth, Decatur bowed to years of pressure to remove a Confederate obelisk that had stood for over a century in Decatur square.

In Cobb County, Kennesaw will recognize Juneteenth for the first time after protests last year in front of a store in downtown infamous for its racist goods.

The Kennesaw Police Department is partnering with faith and community leaders to host “One Community: A Celebration of Unity.” Flyers for the event make no official mention of Juneteenth, but city officials say this is the first year Kennesaw has planned an event observing the holiday.

“Juneteenth is a day to celebrate,” Kennesaw Police Chief Bill Westenberger said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We want to recognize this special day in a way that promotes unity while strengthening the relationships our officers have with all we serve.”

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DeKalb

DeKalb’s city of Stone Mountain lies in the shadow of the world’s largest memorial to the Confederacy, which often overshadows the small city’s Black history. The city’s Juneteenth event will highlight the city’s historic Black neighborhood Shermantown and include a tribute to civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis.

“We are not the Stone Mountain of past where the KKK was marching down the street,” Stone Mountain Mayor Pro Tem Chakira Johnson previously told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We have not been for awhile.”

In nearby Decatur, the city is partnering with the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights, a local activism group, to hold the city’s first Juneteenth celebration. The event coincides with the one-year anniversary of the removal of a 30-foot Confederate obelisk last summer that had stood in the city since 1908.

“As we remember the removal of the Confederate obelisk on Juneteenth 2020, the city of Decatur is proud to be a partner in planning the first official Juneteenth event,” Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett previously said in a news release. “And we look forward to this being the first of what we hope becomes an annual tradition.”

Cobb

In Cobb County, cities like Kennesaw, Powder Springs and Acworth plan to join in on the festivities for the first time, while Marietta will be staging its 18th annual Juneteenth celebration in partnership with the Cobb County chapter of the NAACP.

Last summer, Kennesaw came to grips with some of its sordid racial history. City council members voted to remove a Confederate battle flag from the city’s war memorial at the corner of Main and Cherokee streets.

Days prior to that decision, hundreds of Kennesaw State University students protested outside Wildman’s Civil War Surplus, a storefront that has sold Ku Klux Klan regalia, Nazi photos and Confederate memorabilia in the heart of Kennesaw’s downtown since 1971.

Saturday’s event at Kennesaw First Baptist will feature games, food, entertainment and camaraderie with law enforcement. Scott Luther, the police department’s spokesman, said it’s aimed at promoting diversity and fortifying bonds in the community.

“We’re going to do whatever we can to change that image,” he said. “And we’re going to do everything that we can to let that history be history and in the past. We’re looking for a brighter future as one.”

Cobb County’s NAACP branch has partnered with Marietta for years to organize an annual celebration on the popular Marietta Square. Bonner, who now serves as an executive committee member of the NAACP branch, said the event has grown into one of the premiere Juneteenth festivities in the state.

“If you come up on the Square this weekend, you will see more African Americans than you ever see on the Marietta Square,” Bonner told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s very important because we not only want to celebrate our history, we want people to realize that there is a history to celebrate,” Bonner said.

Powder Springs partnered with non-profit Unity in History Outreach Foundation and planned to have its inaugural Juneteenth celebration last June until the coronavirus pandemic forced them to cancel the plans. The city will have a virtual ceremony Saturday.

“I think it’s about the celebration,” said Powder Springs Mayor Al Thurman, the city’s first Black mayor. “I’m very excited that we’re able to partner with this organization to put it on. And I’m glad that the city supports it. For me, it’s eye-opening, it’s about awareness. And I think more and more young people should be aware of what happened in the past.”

Gwinnett

The United Ebony Society is partnering with Gwinnett County to host a Juneteenth celebration in Lawrenceville.

The Gwinnett Remembrance Coalition Project is hosting a soil collection ceremony in downtown Lawrenceville that will memorialize the life of Charlie Hale, a Black man who was lynched in 1911. Hale is one of three known lynchings in Gwinnett. About 200 masked men dragged Hale out of the Lawrenceville jail and lynched him in the city’s downtown square. No one was arrested in the aftermath of the lynching.

Lawrenceville Mayor David Still said it’s important not to turn a blind eye to those chapters of the city’s history.

”We have to remember our past and not forget it or else we can create the same mistakes in the future as a community,” Still said. “We have to bring healing for everybody in events like this. Hopefully, this memorializing will be able to get toward that healing process and give Mr. Hale and his family dignity that he was not given on the date of the lynching.”

Staff writers Tyler Wilkins and Adrianne Murchison contributed to this article.


EVENT DETAILS

COBB

  • Acworth: Food, refreshments beginning 5 p.m. Saturday, outdoor concert with Total Package Band 7-9 p.m.; Logan Farm Park, 4405 Cherokee St.
  • Powder Springs: Virtual ceremony begins 4 p.m. Saturday; Unity Walk begins 6 p.m. Tune in at www.unityinhistory.org/
  • Marietta: Live jazz concert 7-10 p.m. Friday; cultural festival with 100 vendors 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday; Both days at Marietta Square, 50 N. Park Square.
  • Kennesaw: A family-friendly shindig 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday at Kennesaw First Baptist Church, 2958 N. Main St.

DEKALB

  • DeKalb County: Music, live refreshments, COVID vaccinations 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Friday at bandstand, downtown Decatur square.
  • Stone Mountain: Drummers, dancers, nearly 30 vendors, tribute to late Rep. John Lewis tribute, Shermantown choir performance; 6-9 p.m. Saturday on Main Street.
  • Decatur: Youth art, music and MLK playlist competition 4-8 p.m. Saturday at Decatur square.

GWINNETT

  • Gwinnett County: Music, food trucks, historical presentations 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday; Rhodes Jordan Park, 100 E. Crogan St., Lawrenceville.
  • Lawrenceville: Soil collection ceremony at site of Charles Hale lynching, 10 a.m. Saturday at corner of West Pike and Perry streets troubled