Juneteenth grows in Lafayette, celebrating a wider freedom

A man and a woman standing by a sack of mail in a museum
Susannah Johnson Malbreaux, right, with Abram Freeman, two lead organizers of Lafayette's Juneteenth celebrations Photo by Robin May

What has been an unpleasant reality through the ages is that the Declaration of Independence was noninclusive, and by default, truths were not self-evident. For enslaved Blacks in 1776, it was obvious that the Founding Fathers did not mean them when they declared that all men were created equal.

For descendants of slaves, Juneteenth has become the redeemer of a painful past. And, by default, for African Americans it has become their true Freedom Day.

Yet organizers of local Juneteenth festivities and events realize many people are still in bondage when it comes to knowing — and understanding — the importance of the national holiday.

They plan to change that through public awareness and empowerment.

Susannah Johnson Malbreaux, president of the Southwest Louisiana Juneteenth Committee, notes that Juneteenth not only celebrates African American freedom and achievement, but it also encourages “continuous self-development and respect for all cultures.”

Woman sitting in a chair
Susannah Johnson Malbreaux, president of the Southwest Louisiana Juneteenth Committee Photo by Robin May

Observed as a state holiday on Friday and a federal holiday on Monday, Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when slaves in Galveston first heard news of their freedom.

“It’s the last day when a body of Black people were still enslaved,” says Dr. Tiffany D. Caesar, an assistant professor of Africana Studies at San Francisco State University.

And for that reason, according to Caesar, Juneteenth trumps July the Fourth.

“We’re not free until all people are free,” she says. “It’s truly a day of liberation for all.”

Just as liberating for the SWLA Juneteenth Association is the legislative passage this year of a Juneteenth state license plate. According to Abram Freeman, who was instrumental in founding the local celebration, this recent action will enable the group to form a network and fund festivities from fellow members in the future.

One of the events of this year’s celebration is The Juneteenth Story, written by local playwright Twana Benoit. It opens Thursday at the Wonderland Performing Arts in Lafayette, and is scheduled to run through June 18.

“We cannot afford, as African Americans, to allow our history to be lost,” Benoit says. “Other races and cultures do a better job of celebrating who they are, and what they did.”

Benoit is excited that this year, her son Josiah Price makes his debut as director of the 20-member cast.

“I feel we need to tell some more stories about what’s going on,” she says.

While an issue may seem surreal at times, Benoit has realized “if I bring it out in a play, people will really get it because I write about real people.”

Her characters are based upon people she knows. “They’re relatable,” she says.

From 6-10 p.m. on June 16, the Juneteenth Pageant and Banquet will be held at the Downtown Convention Center in Lafayette. Former Secretary of the La. Dept. of Transportation and Development Shawn Wilson, who is a gubernatorial candidate, will be the banquet’s guest speaker.

At 7 a.m. on June 17 at Lafayette’s Heymann Park, the Juneteenth Sickle Cell Walk is scheduled. Sherell Jones, coordinator of the event, considers herself a sickle cell warrior. Not only does she have the disease, but three of her siblings have succumbed to it.

“It’s very personal, very close to heart,” she says.

That is why she is committed, as head of the Sickle Cell Association of Southwest Louisiana, to expanding awareness and establishing a data registry.

Also slated at the park from 4-8 p.m. that day is the SWLA Juneteenth Festival. According to Malbreaux, it’s an opportunity to enjoy family fun with music and dancing.

On June 19, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Juneteenth: A Freedom Celebration will be held at Maison Freetown in Lafayette. The exhibition showcases the 6888 Postal Battalion, which was responsible for ensuring thousands of backlogged mail was delivered during World War II. 

Woman holds a picture of a woman in military dress
Erica Melancon Fox holds a framed picture of Major Fannie Griffin McClendon of the 6888 Postal Battalion, which was responsible for ensuring thousands of backlogged mail was delivered during World War II. Griffin is the last living member of the battalion in Louisiana.
Photo by Robin May

The Black female regiment included 102-year-old Maj. Fannie Griffin McClendon, a Lafayette native who is the military troupe’s last surviving member from Louisiana.

According to Erica Melancon Fox, founder of the African American museum and cultural center, it is important that stories are told, and local history that impacts the world is acknowledged.

“These women never received a hero’s welcome or a single thank you,” Fox says. “They never got the recognition they deserve. It’s important to say thank you while there’s still a handful of them left.”

Festivities culminate 6-8 p.m. on June 19 with Move the Mindset’s Juneteenth Commemoration at the Downtown Convention Center. The keynote speaker is Dr. Joy Banner, co-founder and co-director of The Descendants Project. 

Other commemoration speakers include NAACP President Ravis Martinez, SLCC Center for Minority Excellence Program Manager Matthew Miles and WOW founding member Judy Daniels. Performers include Herb Green’s Pucci Percussion Youth Drummers and Erica Melancon Fox, who is also a recording artist.

According to Frank Crocco, president of MTM, the organization pays homage to Juneteenth as a symbol of racial and social justice.

The goal is “to remind us of struggles past, to prepare us for struggles present, and to inspire us for struggles yet to come,” Crocco says. 

Whalen Gibbs, who chairs MTM’s Education Committee coordinating the event, hopes the program will help to provide historical knowledge.

“Too many people in our society don’t know much about Juneteenth,” he says. 

According to Gibbs, who also sits on the SWLA committee, true equality and justice will only prevail when everyone is working together.

According to Malbreaux, the biggest misconception of Juneteenth is the why when it comes to celebrating the holiday.

Abram Freeman, who was instrumental in founding the local Juneteenth
celebration Photo by Robin May

“I think people think because we celebrate it, we’re still enslaved,” Malbreaux says. “It’s quite the opposite.”

When it comes to Juneteenth, Freeman says that there are two things that everyone should understand. “The first is that Juneteenth is a celebration of a people while July the Fourth is a celebration of a nation,” he says. “And they’re both worthy to be celebrated.”

However, according to Freeman, he felt like “an immigrant in my own country” prior to Juneteenth.

“Now I don’t feel like an African American. I feel like an American,” he adds.

When people think of an American, according to Freeman, they think of a “white” American because it is the only segment of the population that is not subjugated racially.

“Simply, it should be just American,” Freeman says. “The truth hurts, but the truth will set you free.”

According to Malbreaux, the truth also includes people still enslaved today but in their minds. “They’re free, and they have to start acting like they’re free,” she says.